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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+

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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!

DRACULA WEEK DAY 2: Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958)

Horror of DraculaDirector: Terence Fisher

Writer: Jimmy Sangster, based on the novel by Bram Stoker

Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, Olga Dickie, John Van Eyssen, Valerie Gaunt, Charles Lloyd Pack, Barbara Archer, Janina Faye

Plot: Librarian Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) is called to Castle Dracula by its mysterious count (Christopher Lee). He encounters a strange woman (Valerie Gaunt) who begs him to help her escape, but she flees as Dracula makes his appearance. Dracula has summoned Harker to index his enormous collection of books, and encourages him to make the castle his home as he works. As Dracula leaves him, Harker pens a journal entry that reveals his true intention – to end the Count’s reign of terror forever. That night, he again encounters the strange woman from before, and she again begs his help, only to bite him on the neck. As she does so Dracula appears, blood on his mouth, and he attacks the woman. Harker grapples with the Count, but is defeated, and Dracula takes the woman away. Harker wakes up in his bedroom the next morning, a pair of fang-marks on his neck, and decides he must exterminate Dracula before sundown. He finds the crypt and drives a stake through the vampire woman’s heart, awakening Dracula just as the sun goes down. Dracula seals Harker in the tomb.

Some time later Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) stops at a tavern, seeking word of the missing Harker. A tavern girl gives the Doctor a book she found – Harker’s journal. He finds Castle Dracula and the bodies of both the vampire woman and Harker. Van Helsing returns to Harker’s bedridden fiancé, Lucy (Carol Marsh) to tell her of Harker’s death, but her brother Arthur (Michael Gough) and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling) hide the truth from Lucy, unaware that she is already being visited by Dracula in the night. He is biting her, draining her slowly, preparing her to become his new thrall.

As Lucy is treated for what her doctors believe to be anemia, Van Helsing recognizes the symptoms of a vampire attack. He orders the windows in her room shut at night and the room filled with garlic cloves. At Lucy’s behest, though, her housekeeper (Olga Dickie) opens the windows and removes the garlic. In the morning, Lucy is found dead. Later, the housekeeper’s daughter Tania (Janina Faye) claims to have encountered her dead “Aunt Lucy.” Arthur goes to her tomb that night and finds it empty. Lucy, now a vampire, summons the child to her and they encounter Arthur. Van Helsing saves him and stakes Lucy, sending her to a true rest. Arthur gives Mina a cross to wear, but upon touching it she shouts and collapses, the cross burned into her flesh. She, too, has been touched by the vampire.

That night, Dracula comes for Mina again, draining her so completely Van Helsing has to give her a transfusion of blood from Arthur. Van Helsing finds Dracula’s coffin in the cellar, but the Count takes the moment of distraction to take Mina and flee. They chase him back to Castle Dracula, where Van Helsing exposes him to the light of the sun. Dracula shrivels and turns to dust, his reign of terror ending… until the sequel.

Thoughts: It is utterly unforgivable that I’ve been conducting these movie studies for three consecutive Octobers now, and this is the first time I’ve touched upon the storied Hammer Films catalogue of horror. While Hammer may not have the immediately recognizable icons of Universal (although they in no small way owe their fame to remaking the characters Universal made famous), it’s no less an important chapter in the universe of terror, and I should have delved into it a long time ago.

That said, I picked a great film to begin my Hammer Horror education. Horror of Dracula was Christopher Lee’s first time portraying Count Dracula, and he did a fantastic job in the role. Although largely absent from the middle section of the movie, his presence is compelling and powerful, a real menacing figure worthy of the Dracula name. In the final confrontation with Van Helsing, he momentarily devolves into a mad, snarling beast, and it’s a great moment. You’re terrified of him, you think he’ll rip Peter Cushing’s throat right out. He’s a monster in the best sense of the word.

He’s also the subject of some pretty impressive special effects. When the sunlight kills him at the end, the way he wilts away into nothing is really remarkable for a 1958 film. Hammer truly was on the top of its game.

As Van Helsing, Peter Cushing makes for a great hero. There’s an authoritative sense to him – he’s a man you want to trust in the middle of a terrible ordeal. He carries a gravity and a power that makes the situation seem just as serious as a horror film should seem. Even now, over 50 years later, this really works as a horror classic.

The structure of this film is odd. It’s based on the original Dracula novel, at least in part, but both the plot and the characters presume a great deal of familiarity with the Dracula concept even before the film begins. Harker knows who and what Dracula is and has a plan to destroy him from the very outset, although Dracula seems at least initially fooled by his façade of being a simple librarian. It’s almost as if the film’s heroes had read the novel and decided they wanted to cut off the monster at the pass. Of course, that sort of genre awareness seems to evaporate when Harker reaches Dracula’s crypt and stakes the woman first. Seriously, man? You always kill the boss first, if you’ve got the chance. It’s like this 19th century character from a 1950s movie had never played a video game or something.

Although clearly inspired by Bram Stoker, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster took some unusual and rather inexplicable liberties – changing Harker’s love interest from Mina to Lucy, making the two sisters-in-law, making Arthur Mina’s husband and so on. All in all, the film succeeds in telling a perfectly coherent story, but it’s not exactly the same story as the book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it is a… thing. That happened. And I find it curious enough to point it out. The film also attempts to distance itself from the novel, accepting the by-then common conceit that the vampire cannot venture out in the daylight (absent from the novel) and dismissing the idea of the vampire changing its shape as “pure fallacy” (this idea was present in the Stoker original). I’m truly not sure what to make of it. The writer really seems to be struggling to buy in to the existing Dracula mythology, while picking and choosing the parts he likes and bringing in other elements pretty much at will. I don’t know how a storyteller reconciles those two impulses, but Sangster at least manages to turn out an entertaining story in the mix.

If nothing else, the movie is plenty of fun and a great film to throw on during your Halloween party… or any other time you’re looking to have a creepy good time.

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 1: John Carradine in House of Dracula (1945)

House of DraculaDirector: Erle C. Kenton

Writer: Edward T. Lowe Jr.

Cast: John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Martha O’Driscoll, Lionel Atwill, Onslow Stevens, Jane Adams, Ludwig Stossel, Glenn Strange, Skeleton Knaggs

Plot: Count Dracula (John Carradine) approaches a scientist, Dr. Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), and asks him to discover a cure for his immortal curse. Edelmann and his hunchbacked assistant, Nina (Jane Adams) study Dracula’s blood and discover an unknown parasite. As Edelmann begins his experiments on Dracula a new patient arrives – Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), who seeks a cure for his own curse. When told the doctor is unavailable, an upset Talbot flees to the police station and demands to be locked up. The police summon Edelmann to examine him, and he arrives just in time to witness the rising full moon and Talbot’s transformation into the Wolfman.

Edelmann believes he can cultivate a mold that will allow him to reshape Talbot’s skull, which will relieve the pressure on his cranium and prevent his transformation. (It doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of the movie either.) Unwilling to wait for enough mold to be cultivated, Talbot flings himself from a nearby cliff. That night, as Edelmann searches for Talbot, the Wolfman attacks him. Talbot changes back before Edelmann can die, and the doctor discovers he’s hiding in a cave perfectly suited to grow the spores he needs. As they search the cavern, they find something totally unexpected: the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange). Because what the hell. They bring the monster to the hospital, hook him up to machines that can bring him back to life, then decide not to do it. This should end well.

Dracula, remembering that his name is in the title of the movie, stops by and sees Edelmann’s assistant Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll) playing the piano. For no discernible reason, he uses his power to mesmerize her. Wary, Edelmann tells Dracula he will require another transfusion to test his theory, and Dracula agrees. Edleman falls asleep during the experiment, though, and Dracula reverses the transfusion, placing his own blood into the doctor’s veins before fleeing. Edelmann follows Dracula to his coffin, which he drags into the sunlight and opens, reducing the vampire to a skeleton and laughing at the fact that there’s still a third of the movie left to go.

The transfusion begins to affect Edelmann, darkening his eyes, causing his reflection to vanish. He is becoming a vampire. This conveniently leads to him having a dream sequence largely made up of clips of earlier Frankenstein movies, which tempts him to resurrect the monster. The good in him forces back the evil, and he decides to use the spores to operate on Nina while he’s still himself. She convinces him to use his time to operate on Talbot instead, and he does so, knowing it will not be until the next full moon that they can be certain he was successful.

Edelmann, meanwhile, begins to succumb to the vampire, killing a villager and fleeing the same crowd of angry townspeople who spent most of the 1930s and 40s waiting for Universal to make another monster movie so they could find work. The police come to Edelmann’s hospital, believing Talbot responsible for the murder. Talbot realizes Edelmann is the real killer, and he pledges to help him stay sane long enough to help Nina, then destroy the evil within him. As the next full moon approaches, Talbot is astonished to find he does not transform: the operation was a success. The Wolfman is no more. As Nina tries to tell Edelmann, she finds him resurrecting the Frankenstein Monster, having given in to the evil within him. He kills Nina and has the monster attack the police. Talbot retrieves a police weapon and guns down Edelmann as the mob arrives for their scheduled appointment. The lab catches on fire, because 1945, and the monster is destroyed as the mob, Talbot and Milizia flee.

Thoughts: By 1945 the Universal Monster franchise had largely evolved into a bizarre mishmash where the monsters – particularly the three heavyweights – appeared in each other’s films indiscriminately and with little to no regard to continuity. Just the year before, in House of Frankenstein, audiences saw Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s monster each meet their demise, but here they are without any attempt at an explanation. Today we’d just call it a “reboot” and pretend the earlier movies never happened, but nobody wants to ignore the Universal Classics… nobody in their right mind, anyway.

If there’s one thing this movie proves, it’s that trying to come up with a scientific explanation for what has always been supernatural in-canon is usually a bad idea. The parasites in Dracula’s blood are bad enough, but the explanation for Larry Talbot’s transformation Wolfman is close enough to “it’s all in your head” as to almost be insulting to fans of the character. One can easily believe George Lucas watched this movie just before he whipped up the concept of Midi-Chlorians.

The good news is, no matter how crappy the plot of a movie, it was always a treat to watch Lon Chaney Jr. and Glenn Strange in their legendary forms. Chaney’s Wolfman has always been the saddest and most tragic of the Universal monsters, a creature that wishes for nothing but peace but is utterly unable to find it. When Stan Lee created the Hulk, he always credited inspiration coming from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I’ve often thought the sad case of Bruce Banner had more in common with Lawrence Talbot. And with that in mind, it’s nice to see him sort of get a happy ending for a change. Sure, by the time he met Abbott and Costello three years later he was the Wolfman again, but so what? Frankenstein wasn’t burned anymore and Dracula had regenerated from a skeleton back into Bela Lugosi somehow. Who cares? It’s the 40’s! Party!

Anyway, on to Dracula himself. John Carradine as the legendary nosferatu has surprisingly little to do in this movie, even though he’s the title character. (In truth, at this point Universal’s naming convention was practically random: grab the name of any monster that appears in the movie and add a few other words. This film could just as easily have been titled Curse of the Wolfman or Return of Frankenstein or Dr. Edelmann’s Wonder Emporium and it would have been equally – if not more – accurate.) To Carradine’s credit, in the time he’s on screen he puts forth a solid performance. There’s a charm and a menace to him, and one can believe a woman would allow herself to be in his presence long enough to be affected by his hypnotic powers, which is convenient, because that’s exactly what the alleged plot calls for.

That said, the Dracula in this film is written in a terrible fashion. He begins the story by seeking a cure for his vampirism (something he never showed any particular interest in before), then starts going right back to his old “hypnotize ‘em and suck their blood” routine as if he wasn’t tired of that crap at all. He falls for Edelmann’s transfusion trick entirely too easily, then sabotages the very experiment he asked for in the first place. I spent half the film watching Carradine and shouting: “WHY ARE YOU DOING THINGS? STOP. THIS MAKES NO SENSE. YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE A HOUSE.”

The real star of this movie is Onslow Stevens as Dr. Edelmann, who starts out as a well-meaning scientist skeptic before becoming a creature of cartoonish evil. The dream sequence he has is nearly laughable, as his “good” and “evil” selves seem to argue over whether or not to resurrect the Frankenstein Monster… as if there could be any doubt that he would. Stevens does a great job with what he’s given, he’s just not given A material.

This is not a very good movie, to be blunt. But even the worst of the Universal Monster pictures had a strange sort of charm to them… the fun of seeing these characters overcame the cheesy effects or the ludicrous storylines. While this should never be anyone’s first choice of a monster movie to watch, if it’s available or if you’re doing a marathon of the classics, it has its place.

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!

Next Week is DRACULA WEEK!

Bela LugosiI’m not gonna lie to you guys, I’ve been crazy busy the last few weeks… schoolwork, wedding planning, podcasts and other writing projects… I’ve barely scratched the surface of my annual bacchanalia of creepy cinema that I use to get myself excited for to Halloween. But with the big day rapidly approaching, I could not in good conscience go without marking the occasion with a Reel to Reel project. So next week, I’m going to dive into five wildly different interpretations of the most legendary vampire of all time, Count Dracula:

  • John Carradine: House of Dracula (1945)
  • Christopher Lee: Horror of Dracula (1958)
  • Charles Macaulay: Blacula (1971)
  • Gary Oldman: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
  • Gerard Butler: Dracula 2000 (2000)

Don’t worry, friends, I’m not forgetting THE most legendary incarnation of the big bloodsucker. But longtime readers know that I’ve already given Bela Lugosi the Reel to Reel treatment in the very first project two years ago. (Then again for his appearance in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which means I’ve officially written about every film in which Legosi played Dracula.) So rather than writing about him all over again, I’m going to direct you guys back to that original article, then hit you with five different versions next week. Fair?

Read the original Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madman article featuring Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931)

Okay, now that that’s settled, let’s think about just who Dracula really is, shall we?

The Character:

In the shadowed land of Transylvania, the ancient Castle Dracula stands as a monument to its lord, a creature of Evil. Legend has it he rises at night and drinks the blood of the innocent to maintain his own eternal unlife. But more than perhaps any other character in Icons, Dracula has many, many incarnations — everything from a dark elder god to a charming philanderer to a child’s mascot of creepy fun to an unlikely antihero. Next week, we’re going to think about five such Draculas. Come back on Monday, friends!

Reel to Reel: Icons

People who follow me on Twitter or Facebook have probably already noticed I’ve started watching more horror/comedies in order to beef up Lunatics and Laughter for the eBook edition of that project, which I hope to make available by Halloween. However, I’ve also started casting an eye towards what the next Reel to Reel project should be… and in so doing, I ran into a sort of wall. You see, the first two projects were both horror-based, which made it pretty easy to compile a list. Christmas specials was even easier. But when I turn to other genres, I quickly found a problem figuring out exactly how to arrange my selections. If I did science fiction next, for example, it’s much more difficult to draw a line between the great films of that genre than horror. Star Trek, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future and Plan 9 From Outer Space are all science fiction, after all, but they all deal with wildly different ideas, themes, and tropes. How could I lump them together? When I tired to subdivide — time travel movies, for example — I had a hard time finding enough influential films to last the entire length of a Reel to Reel project.

Then, about a week ago, I realized something you clever people probably figured out some time ago… there’s no rule that says every Reel to Reel has to account for 30 or so movies at once. If a topic works better in smaller groups, why not make smaller groups?

So for the next Reel to Reel, I’m going to mix it up a little. Although I don’t have an exact “start” date yet, sometime soon (probably in March) you’re going to be greeted by the first week of Reel to Reel: Icons. In this project, I’m choosing iconic characters that have been played by five or more different performers and giving them each a week of their own. I’m also going to stretch this out, probably for the rest of the year, giving one week each month (with the exception of December, where I’m going to try to squeeze in two). Doing five movies in a month is a lot easier on me than doing 30, after all, especially when I’m working on a dozen other projects. I’m going to take the five different portrayals of each character and compare them to each other… how does Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood compare to Kevin Costner? How heavily did Brandon Routh draw on Christopher Reeve as Superman? And who’s really the best King Arthur — Sean Connery or Graham Chapman?

I’m also going to accept suggestions from you guys, because I haven’t quite decided all of the characters that will make up the project yet. I will most certainly consider animated versions, different interpretations (that’s kind of the point), and even characters from old movie serials if I can find them on DVD. But I’m going to stay away from characters like Jason Voorhees, who may have been played by multiple actors, but who all wore the same mask and gave essentially the same portrayal. (I know I just pissed off a bunch of Kane Hodder fans, but I stand by that.)

Oh, and one last thing: no James Bond for this project. I know, it’s the most obvious choice, but I think he deserves an entire R2R all to himself someday.

At the moment, these are the weeks I’m planning out:

Superman Week:

  1. George Reeves: Superman and the Mole-Men (1951 Movie Serial)
  2. Christopher Reeve: Superman (1978)
  3. Brandon Routh: Superman Returns (2006)
  4. James Denton: All-Star Superman (2011)
  5. Henry Cavill: Man of Steel (2013)

Batman Week:

  1. Lewis Wilson: Batman (1943 Movie Serial)
  2. Adam West: Batman: The Movie (1966)
  3. Michael Keaton: Batman (1989)
  4. Kevin Conroy: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1992)
  5. Christian Bale: The Dark Knight (2008)

Robin Hood Week:

  1. Errol Flynn: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
  2. Brian Bedford: (Disney’s) Robin Hood (1973)
  3. Kevin Costner: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
  4. Cary Elwes: Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
  5. Russell Crowe: Robin Hood (2010)

King Arthur Week:

  1. Rickie Sorensen: The Sword in the Stone (1963)
  2. Richard Harris: Camelot (1967)
  3. Graham Chapman: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
  4. Sean Connery: First Knight (1995)
  5. Clive Owen: King Arthur (2004)

Hercules Week:

  1. Steve Reeves: Hercules Unchained (1959)
  2. Nigel Green: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
  3. Arnold Schwarzenegger: Hercules in New York (1969)
  4. Kevin Sorbo: Hercules and the Amazon Women (1994)
  5. Tate Donovan: (Disney’s) Hercules (1997)

Sherlock Holmes Week:

  1. Basil Rathbone: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
  2. Christopher Lee: Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962)
  3. Robert Stephens: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
  4. Matt Frewer: The Sign of Four (2001)
  5. Robert Downey Jr.: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Dracula Week:
(Note: I am by no means ignoring Bela Lugosi’s classic 1931 turn as Dracula, but as I already wrote about him in the first Reel to Reel project, this week I would rather link to the original article and look at five other performances.)

  1. John Carradine: House of Dracula (1945)
  2. Christopher Lee: Horror of Dracula (1958)
  3. Charles Macaulay: Blacula (1971)
  4. Gary Oldman: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
  5. Gerard Butler: Dracula 2000 (2000)

And two weeks in December…

Ebenezer Scrooge Week:

  1. Reginald Owen: A Christmas Carol (1938)
  2. Albert Finney: Scrooge (1970)
  3. Alastair Sim: A Christmas Carol (1971)
  4. Michael Caine: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1994)
  5. Jim Carrey: Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)

Santa Claus Week:

  1. Edmund Gwynn: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
  2. John Call: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
  3. David Huddleston: Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
  4. Tim Allen: The Santa Clause (1994)
  5. Jim Broadbent: Arthur Christmas (2011)

There’s still a little room in here to add a few more characters, so I’m open to suggestions… especially if you can think of any women that belong on this list. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit, I’m struggling to come up with any truly iconic characters that have been played by more than five women in the movies. If you can help me out, please do so.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 2: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

abbott-and-costello-meet-frankensteinDirector: Charles Barton

Writers: Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo & John Grant

Cast: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange, Lenore Aubert, Jane Randolph, Frank Ferguson, Charles Bradstreet

Plot: Chick and Wilbur (Abbott and Costello, respectively, although why they even bothered with giving their characters names at this point is beyond me) are employees of a delivery company. They get a nervous phone call from Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) in London, asking about a pair of crates being sent to a house of horrors. He tells them that he’s flying to Florida the next day, and they are under no circumstances to deliver the crates until he arrives. The full moon rises in London and Talbot undergoes a startling transformation, becoming a Wolfman. Confused by the growling on the phone, Wilbur hangs up. Moments later, Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson) arrives to pick up the crates, which he claims contain the remains of the true Count Dracula and Frankenstein Monster. He tells this to Sandra (Lenore Aubert), Wilbur’s girlfriend, who Chick thinks is far too alluring to be with his bumbling friend.

Despite the call from Talbot, McDougal has the proper paperwork, so Chick and Wilbur deliver the crates To McDougal’s House of Horrors. Wilbur is on-edge, surrounded by the creepy contents, but Chick is convinced Dracula and the Monster are just characters from stories. As he leaves Wilbur alone, Dracula (Bela Lugosi, reprising his role for the first time since 1931) rises from his coffin, terrorizes him, and mesmerizes him. With Wilbur entranced, Dracula awakens the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). McDougal and Chick arrive and argue over where the exhibits are while Wilbur, hysterical, tries to explain what happened, but McDougal has them arrested.

Dracula flies to a remote castle where waits Dr. Stevens (Charles Bradstreet) and his assistant… Wilbur’s girlfriend, Sandra. Dracula wants to avoid Frankenstein’s mistake and give the monster a new brain, one so simple and naïve that it will never question his master. Sandra, of course, has just the brain in mind.

Talbot finds Wilbur and Chick, just out of jail, and confirms Wilbur’s story. He has been chasing Dracula, but he can’t go to the police for fear of revealing his own secret. As the moon is about to rise, he gives Wilbur the key to his hotel room and begs him to lock him up overnight, not letting him out no matter what he hears inside. Wilbur’s compliance lasts almost 45 whole seconds, before he goes into Talbot’s room to bring him a bag he left behind. In another comedy sequence, Wilbur narrowly avoids being torn to shreds by a Wolfman he never sees.

McDougal, furious over Wilbur and Chick’s release from jail, meets insurance investigator Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph), who plans to use her feminine wiles to trick Wilbur into revealing the location of the missing exhibits. She narrowly avoids Sandra, who came by to arrange a meeting with Wilbur for that evening’s masquerade ball. Joan convinces him to take her to the ball as well, and while Wilbur revels in his two dates, Chick tries to figure out what his dumpy friend has that he doesn’t. (As Sandra tells him, “A brain.”) The two go to Talbot’s room, where they find it’s been torn apart. Talbot wakes and tells them about his curse – he was bitten by a werewolf, and transforms whenever the moon was full. As Wilbur saw the monsters, he pleads with him to help him. They don’t believe him, and continue their preparations for the ball.

Chick, Wilbur and Joan pick up Sandra for the ball (Wilbur allowing each girl to believe the other is Chick’s date). Sandra finds Joan’s ID card for the insurance agency, while Joan finds Sandra’s copy of Frankenstein’s book on life and death. Each suspicious of the other, they return and meet Sandra’s employer, Dr. Lejos, who Wilbur somehow fails to recognize as Dracula wearing a robe instead of his cape. Lejos insists that Dr. Stevens join them for the party, but Sandra suddenly claims she has a headache and can’t go. She brings Dracula aside and says that Joan and Wilbur’s snooping and Stevens’s inconveniently inquisitive nature are making the operation too dangerous. Angry, he hypnotizes her and bites her, and they go to the ball.

At the ball, Chick and Wilbur encounter a fearful Talbot, who is upset by Chick’s wolf-mask. Sandra, now a vampire, tries to bite Wilbur, but he’s saved by Chick and Talbot, seeking the now-missing Joan. As they search, the full moon appears and Talbot transforms. He attacks McDougal, who blames Chick when he sees the wolf-mask. The party goes mad and people flee, with Chick and Wilbur finding a hypnotized Joan with Dracula. He mesmerizes the boys and takes Wilbur and the girls away. Finally convinced, Chick finds Talbot and they go to Dracula’s mansion, where Wilbur’s brain is being prepared for transplant. Talbot and Chick burst in. Talbot is about to free Wilbur, but once again, he transforms, and Frankenstein’s Monster breaks free. The five of them engage in a mansion-encompassing battle of positively Scooby-Doo-ian proportions, until finally the Wolfman seizes Dracula and they plunge off a cliff. The Monster chases Chick and Wilbur to the dock, where Stevens and Joan set him on fire. As they sit in a boat, Wilbur berating Chick for not believing him, a cigarette hovers in the air, and the unmistakable voice of Vincent Price introduces himself… he’s the Invisible Man.

Thoughts: This film is, inarguably, the greatest horror-comedy ever made. Okay, maybe it’s not inarguable. You can argue it. You’d just be wrong. What’s not arguable, however, is that it is by far my favorite movie out of all the films selected for Lunatics and Laughter, and (with the possible exception of Ghostbusters) the one that I’ve watched the most times. It isn’t Halloween unless I see Bud and Lou go toe-to-toe with the greatest Universal Monsters.

That, in fact, is what makes this such a fantastic movie, friends. Universal Studios took their two greatest comedic stars at the height of their popularity and mashed them into a movie with three of their most popular monster franchises, even getting the classic Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. to reprise their roles as Dracula and the Wolfman, respectively. (Only Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is missing from the classic trinity, and he would get his chance to dance with the boys later in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff and again in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

It’s such simple alchemy – director Charles Barton got five amazing performers and allowed them to do what they do best for 83 incredible minutes. Abbott and Costello pull off the same sort of brilliant wordplay and slapstick that made them Hollywood legends, while Lugosi, Chaney and Strange (playing the Monster for the third time since Karloff’s retirement) give their performances all the force and horror they had in their respective series. The film doesn’t bother with little things like continuity either – there’s no effort to explain how Talbot knew Dracula or the monster, how Dracula found the creature’s remains, or even how any of the monsters were alive, as most of them had a tendency to die at the ends of all of their films. The sequels usually had a halfhearted resurrection scene, but Barton sees no need to even bother with that. The audience doesn’t care about any of these things. They know who Bud and Lou are, who Dracula and the Wolfman and the Monster are, and that’s all they need.

And damned if they weren’t right.

Like I’ve said, comedy and horror are flip sides of the same coin, and I’ve never seen a movie that demonstrates it as perfectly as this one. Our five lead characters (because that’s who Bud and Lou are, no matter what names they were using in the movie, they played the same two characters they always did) come from totally different styles of film: slapstick comedy and tales of pure terror. But when we put them together there is no clash. Everybody is themselves, everyone is entirely in-character, and it all fits together seamlessly. Even the scenes with Lugosi popping in and out of his coffin, giving Costello the stimuli for one of his legendary freak-outs, works for a Dracula who simply enjoys toying with his eventual prey. He even pulls the same sort of hypnosis and gets the same light-across-the-eyes treatment as he did in the original 1931 version of Dracula.

The plot, meanwhile, is straight out of the horror movie handbook. Dracula’s scheme to give the monster a simple brain keys into Costello’s movie persona perfectly. At the same time, it’s still the kind of devilish plan that many a horror movie villain has concocted over the years. Hell, let’s be honest – it’s a more logical plan than thousands of the others movie monster baddies have conjured up over the years. Talbot’s logic – “the police won’t believe me unless I tell them I’m a wolfman” – is kind of sketchy. It’s more likely they’ll just think him even crazier. But it’s still the same sort of logic that dominated this sort of movie back in the 40s and 50s, and therefore is easy to forgive. Similarly, the special effects are of the highest quality available at the time. Talbot’s werewolf transformation looks as good as it ever did in his own films. And while it may be pretty obvious that the Monster burning on the dock at the end is a mannequin being pushed along with sticks, in 1948, how else were you gonna get that shot?

Truly, the only moment that strains credibility, even for the time, is when Talbot and Chick plan their rescue mission. Talbot tells Chick they should hide and wait, since it is now morning and Dracula will be helpless until nightfall. Um… wouldn’t that make this the perfect time to attack? Come on, dude. (Honorable mention, though, goes to the fact that Talbot makes his transformation four nights in a row. Isn’t three usually the limit for a full moon?)

Bud and Lou, a classic vaudevillian comedy team whose act translated to film and television far better than most of their contemporaries, pull off a lot of the same shtick they usually do. They engage in verbal battles, with Bud tossing out unnecessarily complicated words so Lou can amusingly misunderstand them. Bud leaves Lou alone at inconvenient moments so he can be the sole witness to creepy happenings and have entertaining panic attacks. And once or twice, Lou is allowed to get the better of his buddy in a battle of the logical fallacies. In short, they take their standard routine and inject it into a horror movie. But not for one second does it feel forced, do any of the comedic interludes feel like a distraction, or does any of it feel like padding. They’re just there to have fun, as they always do. (Reportedly one scene – where Wilbur sits on the Monster’s without realizing it – took an absurdly long time to film because Glenn Strange simply couldn’t stop laughing at Costello’s antics in his lap.)

Even the old comedy trope – the panicky one sees the madness, the straight man conveniently misses everything until the last minute – feels fresh and original here. And no, it wasn’t, not even in 1948. When Chick pulls out the wolf-mask, you just know there’s going to be a moment when Wilbur encounters the real Wolfman and thinks it’s his buddy in disguise. You’re waiting for it. You would feel disappointed if it didn’t happen. But Abbott and Costello never disappointed on that front.

The finale is simply great. From the moment Talbot and Chick arrive at the mansion until Vincent Price makes his uncredited cameo, we go through one chase after another, with doors and props being smashed at every turn, our heroes bumbling into the monsters at the worse possible moments, often saved through circumstance, luck, or the good ol’ Rule of Funny. If you are physically capable of watching this movie without laughing, you need intense psychoanalysis. And if you didn’t love the Universal monsters before, this will do the trick.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen: the eBook now available!

Reel to Reel - Monsters NO BLEEDLast year, you guys may remember that I spent the entire month of October watching and talking about assorted scary movies, chronologically tracing the evolution of horror films from the 1920s up until the present day. I really enjoyed that little project and I think a lot of you did too. And now, as Halloween approaches again, I’m ready to launch the next stage of that project, my new eBook Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madmen.

This eBook collects the 35 essays I wrote last year, plus five brand-new ones written just for this collection. Over the course of this book, I look at how the things that scare us have grown and evolved over the last century, dishing on some of the greatest, most influential and most memorable scary movies ever made. This eBook, available now for a mere $2.99, is hopefully going to be the first in a series, in which I’ll tackle different cinematic topics the same way.

If you read the essays last year, check this one out and enjoy the new ones. If you haven’t read any of them, dive in now for the first time. And tell all of your horror movie-loving friends about it as well! After all, the reason I decided to write this book in the first place is because I wanted to read a book like this one, but I just couldn’t find one. The market is out there, friends. Help us find each other.

(And lest I forget, thanks to Heather Petit Keller for the cover design!)

You can get the book now in the following online stores:

Amazon.com (for your Kindle or Kindle app)
Smashwords.com (for every other eBook reader)

And in case you’re wondering, the movies covered in this book include:

*The Golem (1920)
*Nosferatu (1922)
*The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
*Dracula (1931)
*Frankenstein (1931)
*The Mummy (1932)
*Freaks (1932)
*Cat People (1942)
*The Fly (1958)
*Peeping Tom (1960)
*Psycho (1960)
*Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Terror (1962-New in this edition!)
*Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
*The Haunting (1963)
*The Birds (1963-New in this edition!)
*Wait Until Dark (1967)
*Night of the Living Dead (1968)
*Last House on the Left (1972)
*The Exorcist (1973)
*The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
*Jaws (1975)
*Carrie (1976)
*Suspiria (1977)
*Halloween (1978)
*Alien (1979)
*The Shining (1980)
*Friday the 13th (1980)
*The Evil Dead (1981)
*Poltergeist (1982)
*The Thing (1982)
*A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
*Return of the Living Dead (1985)
*Hellraiser (1987-New to this edition!)
*Child’s Play (1988-New to this edition!)
*Misery (1990)
*Scream (1996)
*Ringu (1998)
*The Blair Witch Project (1999)
*Saw (2004)
*The Cabin in the Woods (2012-New to this edition!)