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What I Watched In… September 2016

rope

Favorite of the Month: Rope (1948)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. Pit and the Pendulum (1961), C+
  2. Superman (1978), A+
  3. Superman II (1980), B+
  4. Superman III (1983), C
  5. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987), D
  6. Arachnia (2003), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  7. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), A
  8. Blazing Saddles (1974), A
  9. Maggie (2015), B+
  10. Sex in the Comix (2012), B
  11. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), A
  12. Contracted (2013), B-
  13. Contracted: Phase II (2015), C
  14. Coherence (2013), B+
  15. Sabotage (1936), B
  16. Trumbo (2015), B
  17. Deathgasm (2015), D
  18. The Phantom Carriage (1921), B+
  19. Black Swan (2010), A-
  20. Burying the Ex (2014), B
  21. Ex Machina (2015), A
  22. Lilo and Stitch (2002), B
  23. Psycho (1960), A+
  24. Psycho II (1983), D; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  25. DC Super Hero Girls: Hero of the Year (2016), B
  26. Hitchcock (2012), B+
  27. Horror of Dracula (1958), B
  28. Riding the Bullet (2004), C
  29. Ruby (1977), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  30. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015), B+
  31. The Fly (1986), B+
  32. Ghostheads (2016), B
  33. Holidays (2016), B-
  34. Monster House (2006), B
  35. Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006), B+
  36. Wayne’s World (1992), A-
  37. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), F; RiffTrax Live Riff, B+
  38. The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu (2009), C
  39. Murder Party (2007), B
  40. Rope (1948), A
  41. Dreamcatcher (2003), C
  42. Trollhunter (2010), B

What I Watched In… February 2016

HHGG-DVD

Favorite of the Month: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. Frankenstein (1910), B
  2. The Shadow Strikes (1937), C
  3. Grey Gardens (1975), C+
  4. Mitchell (1975), F; MST3K Riff, A
  5. Turbo Kid (2015), B
  6. Cooties (2014), B+
  7. Dracula Untold (2014), C-
  8. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012), A
  9. Stagecoach (1939), A
  10. Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), B-
  11. Master Ninja I (1984), F; MST3K Riff, B
  12. Master Ninja II (1984), F; MST3K Riff, B
  13. Deadpool (2016), B
  14. War of the Worlds (1953), B
  15. Home (2015), B
  16. The Witch (2016), B
  17. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981 Miniseries), A-
  18. Inside Out (2015), A
  19. Batman: The Movie (1966), C

In Defense of the Universal Monsterverse

Universal Classic Monsters

Universal Classic Monsters Essential Collection Blu-Ray (a perfect Christmas gift for wives named Erin to buy their husbands)

Universal Studios has been catching a lot of crap lately about their announced plans to reboot their classic Monster franchises as a shared “Cinematic Universe,” similar to what Marvel Studios has done with their Avengers and related movies. A lot of the internet snark about this particular topic can be dismissed simply by pointing out ill-informed snark is what at least 37 percent of the internet is for (it’s the third most dominant form of content, after porn and pictures of cats), and usually, I think the best way to deal with snarkers is to ignore them entirely. In this case, however, I feel like two of the most oft-cited criticisms of the Universal plan are so blatantly unfair that something needs to be said, and since Bela Lugosi isn’t around to do it, it’s up to me.

First, let’s talk about the notion that Universal is merely trying to copy Marvel’s success. Well… sure, of course they are. Let’s be honest here, that’s what Hollywood does. Virtually any successful film or franchise spawns imitators, plain and simple. Marvel’s parent company, Disney, is doing it themselves, attempting to emulate Marvel’s success with a new series of Star Wars movies. Warner Bros is doing the same thing with the DC Comics characters. Sony and Fox are doing it with their respective Marvel licenses, Spider-Man and the X-Men. Warner Bros is also planning a trilogy of Harry Potter prequels showing the history of the Wizarding World, and Sony is considering a shared universe franchise based on Robin Hood, of all things. And while each of these has been met by at least some level of e-cynicism, the bile being diverted to Universal seems particularly ludicrous to me because, far from copying Marvel, if anything, they did it first.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man

In Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), the monsters began to meet

In 1943 Universal released Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and after that the floodgates were opened. The franchises became inexorably intertwined, Dracula soon entered the picture, and the “monster mash” films became the norm. Granted, the films being made in the late 40s had very little concern with continuity. Characters would suddenly leap to different time periods so they could coexist, dead characters would return to life with little or no attempt at explanation, and nobody gave a damn about consistency. But despite this, it was an early example of what people now think of as Marvel’s model, and in fact is the earliest example of such a thing I’m aware of. (If you know of an earlier one, please tell me, because I want to see those movies.) To be certain, Universal is reviving the concept now because Marvel has been so successful at it, but that in no way negates the fact that they did it over sixty years before Marvel rolled their first foot of film.

The other thing that people are complaining about, a complaint that admittedly has at least a little more validity, is Universal’s recent statement that the new Universal Monster movies will be less of a horror franchise and more of an action-adventure series. I can at least understand why someone would be perturbed by this. The image of Lugosi’s Dracula, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, or Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman are some of the most enduring images of classic terror. But it is in the characters’ enduring nature that we find the problem. Fear stems from the unknown. The more we know about any subject, the more we understand it, and the harder it is to truly fear it. Drac and Frankie are so well known at this point that modern efforts to make them terrifying invariably run the risk of becoming self-parody.

Pictured: Icon of Evil

Pictured: Icon of Evil

Or to put it more bluntly, we live in a world where the first vision of Frankenstein’s monster kids see is his pink counterpart selling them marshmallow cereal. You can’t make that scary. And they don’t want it scary.

Even in the 40s, Universal seemed to know the monsters were becoming too popular to be frightening. When you watch the old monster mash movies, the emphasis is rarely on fear, but instead on providing you a few awesome fights between beloved creatures. Perhaps the crowning achievement of that period was not House of Dracula or any other such picture, but instead, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

It’s not just Universal, either. One reason Ridley Scott’s first Alien movie was so scary was because we didn’t see the monster in full until the very end. By Aliens, since we all knew what it looked like, James Cameron shifted genres from suspense to action, and it was the perfect move. And what about more modern horror icons like Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, or Chucky? How many films did each of these villains get before they switched from being embodiments of darkness to winking at the camera and going for the most over-the-top kills possible? In fact, horror franchises that don’t go meta often fall apart entirely: Halloween’s sequels grew tepid and dull before a reboot that itself was tepid and dull by the second film, and the Saw franchise limped to the finish line a garbled, confusing shadow of its own early sharp as hell installments.

It's easy to forget, but the 1999 version of The Mummy was actually pretty good

It’s easy to forget, but the 1999 version of The Mummy was actually pretty good

And lest we forget, Universal itself has had success with this approach in the past. In 1999, when director Stephen Sommers was tapped to reboot The Mummy, the resulting franchise owed far more to Indiana Jones than to Karl Freund, and it hit very big for a while. They tried to get scary again with the 2010 remake of The Wolfman, and it flopped. Last month’s Dracula Untold, which had a tacked-on post-credits sequence that could have made it a sort of back door pilot for the new Universal Monsterverse, similarly bombed. (Although the studio has not made any official declaration as to whether Dracula Untold will be “canon” in its new universe, I for one am betting against it.) I’m not saying it’s no longer possible to make Dracula or Frankenstein scary, but to do the sort of long-term franchise Universal is picturing, taking an action-adventure route is not only easier, it’s more practical as well.

If the movies come out and suck, then sure, I’ll complain. I’d rather have no Universal Monster movies at all than have bad ones. But nothing that has been said so far indicates an inherently bad idea. Granted, if people online were inclined to wait for evidence to complain about something, an awful lot of bloggers would run out of things to talk about. But frankly, that’s a chance I’m willing to take.

What I Watched In… October 2014

Favorite of the Month: Gone Girl (2014)

Favorite of the Month: Gone Girl (2014)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Devil’s Pass (2013), B
2. Gone Girl (2014), A
3. Josie and the Pussycats (2001), B-
4. F For Fake (1973), C
5. Beautiful Creatures (2013), C+
6. Witch’s Night Out (1978), B+
7. Summer Lover (2008), D
8. When the Zombies Come (2013), B
9. The Canterbury Tales (1972), C-
10. Screamtime (1983), D
11. Market Hours (2014), B+
12. St. Vincent (2014), A-
13. Leprechaun (1993), F
14. Werewolf (1995), D-; MST3K Riff, B
15. Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002), B+
16. The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus (1962), C+
17. Dracula (1931), A
18. Dracula’s Daughter (1936), D+
19. Son of Dracula (1943), C+
20. House of Frankenstein (1944), C+
21. House of Dracula (1945), B-
22. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), A
23. Interview With the Vampire (1994), B-

Showcase Presents the Universal Dracula Legacy

It’s Halloween once again, and the Showcase crew assembles for their (mostly) annual monster movie marathon. This year the gang tackles the six films that make up the legacy of the king of the vampires: Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

 

Building a Franchise

In this weekend’s episode of the All New Showcase podcast, Kenny Fanguy and I talked about the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as other studios that are trying to duplicate their success. Sony is trying to expand their one Marvel franchise — Spider-Man — into a full-blown universe, while 20th Century Fox is planning to merge their two Marvel properties (The X-Men and the Fantastic Four) into one world. Warner Bros is finally launching a DC Cinematic Universe, and Disney seems to have similar plans for the Star Wars franchise now that they own Lucasfilm. It’s the usual pattern in Hollywood, folks — whenever somebody finds success, everybody else wants to duplicate it. In this case, though, I applaud it. A lifelong comic book nerd, the shared universe style is something I dearly love. And in fact, it’s something that kind of surprises me has never been done in the movies before.

Oh, there have been small crossovers. Alien Vs. Predator comes immediately to mind, and Freddy Vs. Jason. Godzilla faced off against King Kong and a plethora of other kaiju back in the day, and if we go back to the 40s, Universal Studios had their “Monster Rally” sequence of films, in which the likes of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf-Man, and Abbott and Costello would encounter each other over and over again. But nobody ever did it on the scale that Marvel has, or that these other studios want. In fact, I’ve heard some rumors buzzing that the big movie studios are looking at a lot of their different properties to see just how this may be done. So that gets me thinking: what other film properties might evolve into this sort of larger cinematic universe?

The first thing that comes to mind for me is Harry Potter. Granted, the books have all been adapted, but Warner Bros has recently announced a new sequence of films based on the spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This should surprise no one. For over a decade now, the top-grossing Warner Bros movie has either been a Harry Potter film or a DC Comics film. Since they’ve got neither scheduled for 2014, they’re no doubt looking to fill the gap in their schedule. If they can get creator J.K. Rowling on board for this, I’m fine with an expansion of the Potter universe. Now let me make something clear — I don’t want any more movies about Harry Potter. His story is over and done with, and I really don’t need to see his adventures as an Auror after the death of Voldemort, because frankly, anything else is going to be anticlimactic. But one of the best things about the Harry Potter world is that Rowling did, in fact, create an entire world — a rich, detailed world, one with many curious ideas and facets that she only brushed up against in her original seven novels. Fantastic Beasts will be the story of Newt Scamander, a wizard who lived centuries ago and cataloged the most amazing magical creatures in the world. There’s plenty of story potential there. Stories of young Dumbledore or McGonagall? I’d watch that. The story of the founding of Hogwarts? I’m there. There are ways to expand the Potterverse that don’t require Harry, Ron, or Hermione, and if anything, that’s the direction Warner Bros should go in.

Universal Studios is planning a remake of Van Helsing, which itself was an attempt to do a sort of modern “monster rally” film. I say they should go all-out. The Universal versions of Frankenstein and Dracula are still the most recognizable in the world, so why not use the new Van Helsing to relaunch a Universal Monster Universe? Throw in Frankie and Drac, put in a Wolf-Man, give us the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Tie in the Brendan Fraser Mummy films while you’re at it — the original Van Helsing had a very tenuous tie in the first place, and it’s easily the most successful Universal monster franchise in decades. Even kids who have never seen a Boris Karloff picture love the monsters, and this is a perfect time to bring them back.

20th Century Fox, as we’ve said before, has both Aliens and Predator in its pocket, and regardless of the quality of the crossover films in those franchises, it’s a pretty natural pairing. The two concepts fit well together, and I think there’s still more that could be done with them. But you know what else Fox owns that could do with a bit of a boost? The X-Files. Think about it for a minute… a new X-Files movie, one that opens with Mulder and Scully sent to investigate a mysterious crash site uncovered beneath the arctic ice, and they wind up finding a Predator, or one of the Engineers from Prometheus. Ridley Scott may not be wild about it (especially if, as the rumors persist, he plans on linking the Aliens franchise back to this own Blade Runner film), but I think there’s room for connectivity here.

I’m just spitballing, friends, I’m throwing stuff around to see what sticks, but I think there could be fun had in any of these directions. If Sony insists on bringing back Ghostbusters, why not build that into a universe with not just ghosts, but all manner of supernatural entities and different squads of heroes combating them? Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are probably done with Men in Black, but there’s plenty of juice left in that universe. Sam Raimi is already planning to tie the reboot of The Evil Dead back into the original Evil Dead/Army of Darkness franchise — why not take a page from the comics and have Ash encounter the likes of Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, or Herbert West?

I know I’m throwing a lot of things around here, but that’s how these things start. Here’s hoping that somebody decides to run with this ball soon, and decides to do it the right way.

What I Watched in… October 2013

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

October, as you can see, was a busy month for me: a trip to Pittsburgh full of wedding prep, the end of a marking period, working backstage on a play… I didn’t have nearly the time I like to devote to my annual October orgy of horror movies. But I still managed to squeeze in a little fun.

1. The Crucible (1996), B+
2. Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th (2013), A-
3. ATM (2012), D+
4. A Trip to the Moon (1902), B; RiffTrax Riff, B+
5. Toy Story of Terror (2013), B
6. Coraline (2009), A
7. House of Dracula (1945), C
8. Horror of Dracula (1958), B+
9. Blacula (1972), C-
10. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), B+
11. Dracula 2000 (2000), C+
12. Trailer Park of Terror (2008), D+
13. Tales From the Crypt (1972), B
14. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), A
15. Garfield in Disguise (1985), B+

DRACULA WEEK DAY 5: Gerard Butler in Dracula 2000

Dracula 2000Director: Patrick Lussier

Writer: Joel Soisson & Patrick Lussier

Cast: Gerard Butler, Christopher Plummer, Jonny Lee Miller, Justine Waddell, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Esposito, Omar Epps, Sean Patrick Thomas, Danny Masterson, Lochlyn Munro, Tig Fong, Jeri Ryan, Shane West, Nathan Fillion

Plot: Matthew Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer) is an antique dealer in London in the year 2000, and constantly attempts to downplay the tales of his grandfather Abraham, who supposedly inspired the vampire hunter character in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. His secretary, Solina (Jennifer Esposito), helps her boyfriend, Marcus (Omar Epps) break into Van Helsing’s vault. They set off a series of traps, killing several of the thieves in the process. The survivors steal a silver coffin, which they take with them as they flee to New Orleans. Van Helsing and his apprentice Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) pursue them. On the way over one of the thieves, Nightshade (Danny Masterson) opens the coffin to find a corpse covered in leeches. The corpse rises and attacks him, slaying two thieves to regain a healthy, human form – Dracula (Gerard Butler).

In New Orleans, at Mardi Gras (because in Hollywood, Mardi Gras happens every day of the year in New Orleans) we meet Van Helsing’s daughter Mary (Justine Waddell) and her friend Lucy Westerman (Colleen Fitzpatrick). Mary, who has been having nightmares, finds herself with an unexplained psychic link to Dracula. She turns to Father David, (Nathan Fillion) an old friend who knew her late mother, hoping he can help her uncover the secrets she carried with her, but he knows nothing that can help her. Van Helsing arrives in New Orleans to see news of a plane crash in a nearby bayou, and sees the silver coffin among the wreckage. Reporter Valerie Sharpe (Jeri Ryan) is on the scene of the crash – and soon becomes one of Dracula’s new brides. Simon and Van Helsing find the bodies of Marcus’s crew, only to find they’ve become vampires.

Van Helsing tells Simon that Dracula cannot be permanently destroyed, even by the normal methods of killing a vampire (stakes, silver, sunlight). He has spent his life seeking a way to kill the beast, to no avail. What’s more, he’s not Abraham Van Helsing’s grandson, he is Abraham, having prolonged his life by leeching Dracula’s blood and injecting it into himself. All he knows is that Dracula hates God and Christianity, presumably lining him up for a correspondent’s job at MSNBC. Dracula seeks Mary, but instead encounters Lucy, who he bites. Mary sees a flash of Lucy’s assault just as Simon approaches her with the promise of explaining why her mother took her across the world to escape her father. As she leaves, he’s attacked by Marcus, but slays him.

Van Helsing tracks Dracula to Mary’s house, but is killed. Mary finds him under the bed, and is soon assaulted by Dracula’s three new brides: Solina, Valerie, and Lucy. She learns the telepathic link she has with Dracula is because her father had injected himself with the vampire’s blood. Dracula shows Valerie the truth of his origin – he is Judas Iscariot, betrayer of Jesus Christ, condemned to walk the Earth ever since the night of his great sin. He takes her to Simon, captured by the Brides, and offers him to Mary: drink his blood and join them as a vampire. She tricks him and they fight, slaying the Brides. After a struggle, she wraps a cord around his neck and pushes him from the roof, hanging him, just as Judas was hanged for his sin, as the sun rises. He catches on fire when the sun touches him. Mary, however, remembers that her father said none of the normal ways to kill a vampire work on Dracula, and vows to return to London to watch in case he ever returns.

Thoughts: Produced by Wes Craven, whose name has turned up in previous movie studies a time or three, this is an odd telling of Dracula. Although it acknowledges the classic story, it also borrows elements from it, making Dracula 2000 an attempted hybrid between a sequel to Bram Stoker’s original and a contemporary remake of the same.

Craven’s greatest work – and here I am thinking specifically of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream,  which the movie poster vehemently reminds us of – fall into the “slasher” category of horror. Dracula, however, is a different kind of beast, and the same things that work for Freddy Krueger or Ghostface don’t necessarily work here. The weaker elements of this movie, in fact, are those that attempt the same sort of jump scares or plot twists that make up the very DNA of a slasher film, but feel a good bit sillier in the context of a vampire movie.

Speaking of silly, I know this is just my personal sensitivity as a lifelong Louisiana boy, but I really would love to get my hands on whoever dressed the extras in this movie and batter them in the face with an oversized set of Mardi Gras beads. People don’t always dress for a party here, nor does everybody in the city show up wearing oversized novelty hats. The fact that this story takes place at Mardi Gras bears absolutely no bearing on the plot, making it just another case of Hollywood thinking it’s like that here all the time. And the “local” news reporter who asks “what’s the deal with these bugs?” It’s Louisiana, jackass. That’s the deal. We gots bugs.

But I digress.

One thing about this movie I do find interesting is the origin story of Dracula. This is one monster that I always feel is actually stronger when he has a religious bent of some sort. Perhaps it comes from the old notion that he can be driven back by a Crucifix, but Dracula as an enemy of God is a concept that makes sense to me and I think works for the character. (It was, in fact, a strength of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.) Casting him as Judas, however, doesn’t quite do the trick. It may seem to fit the requirements, but it also betrays a rather fundamental misunderstanding of Judas as he was presented in the Bible – he never hated Christ. And come on, even if we’re to believe that Dracula didn’t hate Jesus in the beginning, but grew to hate him due to his curse, it’s not like he didn’t have it coming. Plus, the Biblical flashbacks in this film are pretty cheesy, clear soundstage set-ups and not convincing at all.

Gerard Butler – who, by the way, isn’t nearly oily enough in this movie to be recognizable as Gerard Butler – doesn’t have as much to do as Dracula as you would think. He basically is called upon to stand around looking menacing, throw people smaller than him through scenery, and seduce beautiful women. He has a better job than any of us, is what I’m saying. But he plays Dracula as more of a force of nature than a character, with little dialogue and littler personality.

The rest of the cast is largely forgettable – sitcom actors and other b-movie stars or musicians taking a stab at acting. Only Christopher Plummer has any real acting chops, and he’s hamming it up with the rest of them. It’s telling that arguably the supporting performer in this movie with the best post-Dracula career is Nathan Fillion, who appears for all of five minutes.

The design aesthetic is so, so nineties. It’s not enough that our hero have a gun, it has to be a gun with a detachable knife. Hallways must appear endless. Even the Crucifix Simon gives Mary at the end has a hidden blade inside it. Admittedly, there’s a practical purpose for it, but it still feels like overkill.

Overall, it’s hard to really recommend this movie. From a technical standpoint, it’s superior to Blacula, but damn if that movie won’t stay with me more. This film has two direct-to-DVD sequels as well, and while a weird part of me wants to seek out Scream, Blacula, Scream, and all of me wants to continue watching more of Christopher Lee in the Hammer Dracula movies, if this is the end of my road with Wes Craven’s Dracula, I think I’m okay with it.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

DRACULA WEEK DAY 4: Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stokers DraculaDirector: Francis Ford Coppola

Writer: James V. Hart, based on the novel by Bram Stoker

Cast: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Billy Campbell, Sadie Frost, Tom Waits, Monica Bellucci, Michaela Bercu, Florina Kendrick

Plot: In 1492, the warrior Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) returns from battle to find his wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) has killed herself after hearing a false report of his death. Enraged, Dracula renounces God and stabs a cross, which begins flowing with blood. He drinks the blood and screams.

Over four hundred years later, solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is given an account from his colleague Renfield (Tom Waits), who has gone mad. Harker says goodbye to his fiancé, Mina (Winona Ryder again) and travels to meet his new client, Count Dracula of Transylvania – now a frail-looking old man, but with horrible power. When Dracula sees Harker’s photograph of Mina, he is stricken, believing her to be the reincarnation of his long-dead wife. Harker explores the castle, only to be found and fed upon by Dracula’s three “brides” (Monica Bellucci, Michela Bercu and Florina Kendrick).

Mina’s friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) is romanced by three separate men: a visiting American, Quincy Morris (Billy Campbell); Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant); and Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes). She ultimately accepts Arthur’s proposal of marriage. Dracula, meanwhile, has boxed up himself and the most important parts of his household and is sailing to England and his new property in Carfax Abby. As they arrive in England, Dracula transforms into a wolf-like monster and seeks out the home of Harker’s fiancé. Mina awakens to see Lucy, mesmerized, leaving her home in the midst of a storm, and finds her being ravaged by the wolf-man. When he sees Mina watching, he flees. In the morning he appears as a young man, and introduces himself to her as “Prince Vlad of Sangre.”

Concerned for Lucy’s ailing health, Seward calls for Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). He arrives to see Lucy again being drained of blood, this time by Dracula in shadow-form. He gives her a transfusion from Arthur. Elsewhere, Dracula plies Mina with absinthe, wooing her slowly. Harker manages to escape from Dracula’s brides and sends for Mina to join him so they can finally be married. When she bids farewell to her “prince,” he goes into a mad fit and kills Lucy. After her funeral, Van Helsing convinces her three suitors to join him in opening her crypt, only to find it empty. Lucy, now a vampire, enters the tomb with a small child intent on feeding, and the men slay her. Harker joins them and tells them Dracula resides at Carfax Abby, and they plan to destroy him.

Van Helsing and the others go to the Abby and begin destroying the boxes of Transylvanian soil Dracula must sleep in. He, meanwhile, visits Mina, who begs him to grant her his gift of eternal life. As she drinks his blood, Van Helsing and the others burst in and force him back. He transforms into a horde of rats and escapes. He takes a ship to return home, but the others take Mina by train, a much faster voyage. Van Helsing and Mina travel to the castle, while the others try to head off the gypsies transporting Dracula’s casket. The Brides attack Van Helsing, but he manages to track them to their crypt and slay them by the light of day. The hunters catch up to Dracula at the castle. Morris dies in the battle, but not before stabbing Dracula in the heart. The wounded vampire crawls into the chapel where his curse began and dies, Mina by his side. She professes her love to him before cutting off his head, releasing him from his curse. A fresco appears, picturing the human Vlad and Elisabeta rising, at long last, into Heaven.

Thoughts: You’ve got to give Francis Ford Coppola credit – the man doesn’t do half-measures. From the first moments of the film, when we see Gary Oldman marching around in blood-red armor sculpted to suggest bare muscle tissue, we know we’re in for a wild sort of ride. That’s only where it begins, though – Coppola took great pains to give this film a unique look, eschewing camera tricks, even the sort of green screen that was common when the film was made in 1992. Every effect is practical, including the projection of words on the faces of actors, the reflection of enormous eyes onto glass windows, and some frankly humorous model train work. Lightning strikes don’t look remotely realistic, instead giving the impression of someone shining a flashlight through a cut-out flat behind the actors. It’s as if Coppola decided that he was by god going to make sure everything he captured on film was no more complicated than he could have gotten out of a community theater production of the story. And boy, did he succeed.

Despite the inherent goofiness of doing something this way, though, I find that the look of the film is one of the first things I loved about it. This doesn’t look like any of the other Dracula movies I’ve seen… hell, it doesn’t look like any other movie I’ve seen. It has a unique sort of style, not just in the design but in the way all the elements come together, that appeals to me in ways I can’t fully articulate. Let’s just say there’s something really cool about all of it, the same way you realize your dad was kind of cool when you get older and catch yourself making the same kind of jokes that embarrassed the hell out of you when he told them to your friends.

On the plus side, some of the monster effects are really cool. While certain other films downplayed the notion that vampires could change their shape or were limited by the effects of the time, Coppola pulls off a pretty convincing monstrous transformation on the screen, with Oldman metamorphosing from a pale creature to a hairy, wolflike beast. (Yeah, folks, in classic lore vampires could turn into bats or wolves. Also mist. It’s cool.) The design of the human-sized bat is really creepy and worthy of the nastiest supernatural horror flick. The set design is impressive, and the costumes are top-notch.

Gary Oldman… if ever there was an actor who gave himself entirely to the movie, it’s Gary Oldman. He’s given us the finest interpretation of Commissioner James Gordon ever to fit a Batman movie, and he’s also given us the insane, over-the-top lunacy of The Fifth Element. One thing you can count on is that he never phones in his performance. In this film, he revels in the cheesy dialogue and ridiculous character work he’s asked to do. Every chunk of scenery to be chewed, every wild arm flailing or preposterous accent… when Gary Oldman presents it to you, you know he believes it.

Winona Ryder is pretty effective as Mina, pulling off a passable British accent and a convincing amount of young naiveté, as befits the character. Anthony Hopkins brings his usual air of class to Van Helsing, and Cary Elwes continues to prove, as I asserted back during Robin Hood week, that he should have been born in an earlier era, because he has the presence of a grand star of cinema’s Golden Age. Keanu Reeves plays Keanu Reeves.

I’m a little weirded out by the ending, to be perfectly honest. Coppola appears to be trying for some sort of fable about the healing power of love, showing some sort of redemption for Dracula after Mina’s love “sets him free” (by means of brutal decapitation). That’s all well and good, lord knows there aren’t many people that believe in true love as much as I do, but is Dracula really the best place to insert that particular moral? The man is, by every definition of the term, a terrible monster. He chose to turn against God, he brutally murdered countless people over 400 years, but at the end he seems to get a pass just because he got a woman (that he gave the vmpire equivalent of a roofie) to say she loves him. That’s the ending of Beauty and the Beast, except that the Beast was only guilty of kidnapping and a little mild verbal abuse. How does Dracula deserve redemption?

That aside, I enjoy this movie quite a bit. It’s a well-made production with its own look and feel that sets it apart from any other version of the character, and for me, that’s one of the most important things you can look for in a movie.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

DRACULA WEEK DAY 3: William Marshall in Blacula (1972)

BlaculaDirector: William Crain

Writer: Joan Torres & Raymond Koening

Cast: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas, Thalmus Rasulal, Gordon Pinsent, Charles Macaulay, Emily Yancy, Ted Harris, Rick Metzler, Ketty Lester

Plot: In the 18th century African Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) seeks out the aid of the regal Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) in helping him snuff out the slave trade. Dracula refuses, attacking Mamuwalde and cursing him to share in his vampirism before christening him “Blacula” and sealing him in a tomb.

Over 200 years later, long after Dracula’s death at the hands of Van Helsing, his property is purchased by a pair of interior decorators (Ted Harris and Rick Metzler) who find Mamuwalde’s coffin and bring it to Los Angeles. There, as they examine their purchases, the vampire awakens and slays them both. At the funeral for one of the victims, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulal) examines the body to find it surprisingly empty of blood, despite his mother’s request he not be embalmed. Mamuwalde encounters Tina Williams (Vonetta McGee), whom he takes to be the reincarnation of his wife, Luva, and attempts to pursue her, but loses her when he’s struck by a taxi cab. The driver (Ketty Lester) makes for a good snack. Gordon is summoned to examine the driver’s body and finds her injuries, like the decorator’s, to be consistent with the legend of the vampire.

Mamuwalde continues to stalk and slaughter the friends of his victims, while Dr. Thomas begins a search for the serial killer. When he opens the grave of one of the victims, he finds the man has transformed into a vampire. After a brief struggle, Gordon stakes him through the heart. Mamuwalde, meanwhile, has found and romanced Tina, who becomes engrossed in his promise of eternal life if he makes her a vampire as well. Gordon shows Lt. Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsent) the transformed cab driver as she attacks, but is destroyed by sunlight. Together, Gordon and Peters begin to hunt the monster, not realizing Tina is now dating the beast until Gordon develops a picture he took only to find Mamuwalde doesn’t have an photographic image.

The cops swarm the city, seeking not only Mamuwalde, but his assorted victims, each of whom is rising and transforming. They track him to a warehouse, where an entire horde of vampires attacks and slays a police officer. They barely escape with their lives and the police issue a city-wide curfew in the hopes of depriving the vampires of potential victims. Tina, however, slips out and seeks Mamuwalde, who transforms her into a vampire. Peters kills her, devastating Mamuwalde. His reason for living gone, the vampire steps outside and allows the sunlight to reduce him to ash.

Thoughts: Perhaps I’m cheating a bit with this film. After all, Dracula himself is a supporting player at best – but in dealing with the pedigree of this character and the various interpretations he’s enjoyed over the decades, it’s hard to ignore William Marshall’s turn in the cape and fangs. This is the first time I’ve delved into the Blaxplotation subgenre here in Reel to Reel and with good reason – a lot of those movies are terribly goofy and many of the others are instantly forgettable. Something about Blacula, however, has withstood the test of time, even if it’s mainly as a curious footnote in the horror genre.

William Marshall’s “Blacula” isn’t exactly a legendary hellbeast. In fact, he works far better as a parody of the vampire than as a monster himself. The shots of him looming in the corners, ready to lunge, are laughter-inducing. This may be an example of cultural dissonance, I suppose. It’s possible that the audience of 1972 could have viewed this and enjoyed it as a legitimate creepy good time. But somehow, the various musical breaks and campy nature of the vampire’s performance make me doubt it was terribly frightening even then. (The cheesy 70s soundtrack doesn’t help the situation.)

Speaking of cultural dissonance, this is one of the few times since I’ve started these reviews that I’ve actually caught myself irritated at an older film that doesn’t accept the tropes of a more recent one. As Gordon and Peters are attacked by the vampires in the warehouse and their redshirt cop buddy starts pumping useless bullets at the bloodsuckers, I found myself asking why they didn’t just start staking them in the heart. It wasn’t until a minute or so later that I remembered the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, From Dusk ‘Till Dawn and the Blade trilogy were still two decades away from making a staking seem like a walk in the park. Back in the 70s, it still took effort to kill a vampire.

The rest of the movie works better than the title character. When each of Mamuwalde’s victims transforms into a vampire they provide a brief but legitimate scare. The cab driver in particular is rather effective, leaping at the camera even as she goes after Pinsent. Her makeup is far more convincing, her performance far more menacing in the few seconds before she’s destroyed by the sunlight. The vampire horde is actually really creepy, feeling slightly zombie-ish, but scarier in that these are creature that still possess intelligence. Unlike zombies, vampires retain their mortal selves in many ways, making the evil that lurks beneath even more pronounced.

Thalamus Rasulal makes for an effective Van Helsing substitute in this modern retelling, accepting the reality of his situation relatively quickly and teaching himself what to do to combat the threat of the vampire. He’s our de facto hero, and helps propel the story where you want it to go. His performance actually helps spur one of the few real innovations in this film – once provided with some solid evidence, the police join in the search rather than turning into stonewall skeptics the way the usually do in genre movies. Not only does Peters easily buy into the notion that there’s a vampire stalking his city, but he manages to get the entire force in on the action. I can’t think of a single horror movie before or since where such a thing happened unless the situation reached the level of a full-on apocalypse.

The final scene of the movie, as Mamuwalde melts in the sunlight, would make a remarkably effective visual stunt if not for the fact that the makeup and worms are applied to a dummy that doesn’t quite seem to fit the proportions of the actor. In a way, that’s not a bad metaphor for this movie as a whole – it has all of the traits you want in a good vampire movie, but doesn’t entirely succeed at convincing you you’re watching an honest effort to scare anybody. I’ve seen worse movies – I’ve even seen worse Dracula movies – but this movie somehow just feels more like a cultural oddity than anything that will leave a lasting impression on me.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!