Sunday, October 2, 2022

The Mummy and The Bride of Frankenstein Fathom Events Universal Monsters


Ninety plus years later and these films continue to work. Sure they are a little creaky around the edges and the story telling and acting feels like it is from a different time, but there is still horror to be had and fantastic moments to revel in. 

The Universal Monsters are the classic horror films that so many fans of scary movies were initiated with. As a seven year old you maybe hid your face under a blanket as you peeked out at Bela Lugosi in the TV screen, or maybe you had a nightmare featuring Frankenstein's Monster tossing you into the lake. The iconic images of those films are the default icons of horror fans, even more that Ghostface and Jason. 

The first film on the program was "The Mummy" from 1932. Boris Karloff had become a star the year before with the original "Frankenstein" and as a result, he was top billed and promoted as the feature attraction ion this film. Imhotep is not the image of the Mummy that most people will remember. Later films featured the fully bandaged leg dragging mummy strangling people, but in this movie, that incarnation of the creature is only briefly viewed, never walking and we don't see it do anything more than drive a man mad. When Karloff shows up late as Ardeth Bay, his make up is more subtle but no less creepy. Even 90 years later, the light effects on his eyes work at creating a sense of evil and power, despite being a primitive special effect.

Production design on the film sets was pretty effective, conveying a sense of being in an Egyptian Museum or Tomb. while it is really just the back lot. The pool that reflects the history of Imhotep looks great when the foggy clouds roll over it but once the scene begins, it looks like a TV set, twenty years before TV sets became widely available. The plot however is nicely visualized and we get some great exposition with only a slight amount of narration by Karloff. 

During the five minute break between the films, we got a countdown clock and a slide show of lobby cards, posters and Behind the Scene photographs of the film. It was a nice little treat.

The second feature on this Special Halloween screening is the beloved "Bride of Frankenstein". This is the James Whale Masterpiece that made the creature the most sympathetic character on the screen. There is some effective editing of material from the original into the flashback exposition and that reminds us just enough of what had happened in the previous film.  The most delightful part of the opening however is the imagined conversation between Lord Byron, Shelly and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly. Elsa Lancaster gets to appear in the film without the bride make-up in this sequence, and her story is the one that casts the spell for us. The flourish that Lord Byron provides is amusing and it frames the story as a real moment of  theatricality. 

The character actors in the movie steal every scene they are in, Uno O'Conner screams her way to immortality, Dwight Frye is creepy and funny as Karl, the murderer who supplies the body parts for the experiment, and of course, Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Pretorius outshines the two romantic leads who we never get a chance to care much about. 

Karloff is the star, and even under the heavy make-up he gives a performance for the ages. Although the monster does speak a few words, the performance is largely silent and Karloff conveys fright, anger and pathos with his whole body, and he is never relying on the iconic voice that would make him an actor in demand for his whole life. You lovers of Dr. Seuss will know what I am talking about. The sequence that was parodied by Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein, with the blind man making friend with the monster is a master class in acting by Karloff. Everyone in the audience is going to sympathize with the creature after this sequence in spite of all the murder that came before. 

If there is a co-star the equal of Karloff in this film it is the production designers. They make miniature castles and mansions so appealing on screen. The laboratory is filled with equipment that is invented for this film and some items that did exist in the real world are adapted to the moment. The photography uses shadows and light to make each moment visually special. The sparks fly and the wind blows and the faces gleam in the carefully placed lighting. The whole creation scene is just spectacular. It is a shame that the title character has so little screen time, but as story efficiency goes, the climax of the movie does not draw things out and it is incredibly satisfying. 

Saturday, October 1, 2022



October has arrived, and with it, the start of the spooky season on-screen. We get a pretty good one to lead off in "Smile". Basically, this is a contagion story, like "The Ring" or "IT Follows". Some mysterious force is passing along a curse that is leading to the death of those who end up in it's path. For ninety percent of the film, it sticks to this concept and the horror is based on creeping psychological moments and disturbing deaths that follow those moments. It is only in the last few minutes that it turns into a creature feature and loses track of what was working so well up to then.

The cast is made up of familiar faces from television, and they all do a credible job selling their moments. Sosie Bacon comes across as a sincere therapist who has the job of trying to help a disturbed young woman who is having bizarre  paranoid vision. Her early calm demeanor and sympathetic face make what happens in the course of the film more horrifying. We know that this is a good person who is having something terrible take over her life. The fact that what happens is largely depicted as her own psyche falling to pieces is what makes the story compelling. It is a trope in these kinds of movies, that the victims come across as disturbed, which is why their explanations of supernatural origin are dismissed. You would think that a psychology professional would be able to get around that and speak to others in a way that is more rational and convincing. When the patient is yourself, it is not so easy.

There are a few death scenes that account for part of the horror in the film. The initial suicide is plenty disturbing, although the medical professional's call for help should have been responded to quicker, the slow execution of the moment makes it visually compelling. Other deaths are mostly suggested and displayed in brief forms. The truth is that this film gets most of it's horror impulse from jump scares, scattered throughout the movie. The jump scare is a cheap tactic but when it works, the impact on the audience can be quite chilling. There were two that worked on me, and one of them gave me the kind of shiver deep down that we really want from a horror film. 

An important component of the plot is that the witness to the death must be traumatized by it for the contagion to take hold. We know from early on that Dr. Cotter, the character played by Bacon, witnessed her own Mother's suicide after having been neglected as a child. She is in essence suffering from a survivor's form of PTSD. The interactions with her sister and fiance are good opportunities for us to have insight into how the long term suffering is masking the current crisis. We know also, that she has had a failed relationship in the past because of these issues. The best parts of the movie deal with the tender way she is trying to hold it together in the current situation, and how she is failing at doing so. 

Because it is a movie and not just a play, we are going to get some visual representations of those inner thoughts, and that is a tip off from early on that we cannot trust the things that we are seeing. Sometimes they are presented as nightmares, or daydreams, but there are a couple of extended points that are fake outs and undermine the audience's ability to identify with the character. In the climax, we get a visualization of the traumatic id that turns the end of the movie into a monster story rather than a psychological thriller. It's a pretty good visualization but it feels unnecessary and I thought it detracted from the ultimate finishing moment.

In spite of a few missteps, the movie largely succeeds at being frightening, thoughtful and entertaining. There were some nice scary moments and the film takes the time to let the pressure build. I'd say it is a reasonably good start to the Halloween onslaught of  horror. Enjoy your goosebumps this month.  

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Poltergeist TCM 40th Anniversary Fathom Event


I just covered this film last year on my Summer project for 2021 80's Nostalgia Central, you can read a full post here. Last night was an opportunity to see it in a theater and that was a treat. This movie continues to work like gangbusters. I've seen it a dozen times and it still gets a rise out of me, there are great sequences that raise goosebumps, and jump scares that work in spite of the fact that you know they are coming. 

Ben Mankiewicz said in the out going comments that Spielberg definitely directed the sequence with JoBeth Williams in the freshly dug pool with the caskets popping up. The story is that she was worried about her safety with the water and all the effects and electrical equipment in the scene, and that Spielberg jumped in the water with her and said, "well if anything does go wrong, they'll lose both of us". 

Although I usually an aghast at too much screaming on screen, it was perfectly natural here. The kids are really solid and Williams is the real star of the picture. The spontaneous chair stacking is a simple concept that gave me a shiver when it happened so quickly. The biggest chill however continues to be the clown doll, If you suffer from Coulrophobia, you do not want to see this movie. As I said, I knew it was coming, I know both bumps in the sequence and they still gave me goosebumps. 

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Don't Worry Darling


There are a hundred beautiful things in this film, and the craft trades have much to be proud of when they point to their credit here. Florence Pugh will add to her reputation as a fine actress with an interesting look and talent to spare. Harry Styles probably should not quit that very successful day job, but I did not find him to be the disaster that others have labeled him. Director Olivia Wilde has an eye for creative visuals, but she has not found a way to turn that vision into a tool that advances a coherent story. Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke have created a screenplay and story that resembles a number of other films. The reality of the characters is not reality. The question that comes up immediately, what the heck is going on? I'm going to tell you now, you will not be satisfied with the answer. 

Maybe they thought that what they were telling was an allegory on women and men and their roles. It starts off as if it were an update to "The Stepford Wives", since it seems the men have a secret and the women are all at home taking care of domestic issues. That however is as close to any obvious commentary as you are likely to get. There is one point where it sounds like it is going to be commenting on the men's movement which has been widely discussed in the past few years. There is a hint of that in one of the speeches that the leader of the community is making, it almost comes off as a parody of those advocating that men return to their traditional roles. It turns out those words are gobbledygook and the point is even more obscure after that. When we finally get to the explanation of what is going on, it seems almost to go in the opposite direction, because the ineffectual men that make up the community are apparently not employed in something nefarious, unless work is somehow evil.

So what happens in the movie is aggressively stupid, and it gets more annoying as it goes along. The surface of "Victory" the town that all the characters occupy, is glossy and chic in a retro 50s style. Having grown up in the sixties in Southern California, I saw plenty of homes that looked like the ones in this film. I think there are probably stretches of Palm Springs that look like this. The sheen on the cars is so bright you could get blinded by it. Unlike in Stepford, the wives do not appear to be zombies with the same dull faces, except when the director wants them to be during repeated ballet lessons. If this is a message about conformity, why do the women have different styles, why are some of them pregnant, why does our main couple have a sexual appetite that is so insatiable they abandon dinner or have sex in the bosses bedroom?  All of the characters take note of the differences as well. When Alice, the character played by Florence Pugh points out the similarity of the couples first meetings, there is a stamp of conformity, but instead of it being a problem in their behavior, it is a flaw in the mechanism that supposedly created this perfect community. If a video-game can have countless resolutions based on the programming and performance of the players, how is it that the system we discover can't even create different backgrounds for characters? It makes no sense. 

Speaking of making no sense, when the twist gets revealed, the first question that popped into my mind was "where did the plane come from?" It is not clear if this is an open system or a closed system. Sometimes, as with the sexual adventures of our main couple, it feels like there is an ability to influence the environment of  the program.  Other times, as when another wife has a breakdown, it feels like the system is in control. How much influence Alice has over what happens is not clear, ever. The power of the system is sometimes supposed to be implacable, but clearly it is not. When Chris Pine, as the cult like leader of the community, confronts Alice, he makes it sound like he and she are in some kind of battle, but that would undermine everything it looks like he is trying to accomplish.  Also, the completion of his story is completely inconsistent with what the twist has revealed.  It is difficult to talk about how stupid some of this is without crossing a spoiler line. When it is covered on the podcast, you will hear more if you tune in. 

Let's just say that this is a "Twilight Zone Episode", expanded to two hours and given an indulgent budget. It would be better as a 22 minute black and white episode. It would still be middling in terms of story but it would be less annoying. Just because a Busby Berkeley dance sequence looks interesting, does not mean it belongs in the movie. If you are not tired of a world built around the premise of "The Matrix" and you enjoy songs from the 1950s, then you might find something here to enjoy. I felt  it was a weak sauce retread of concepts that have been done better before. It's dipped in a nice candy coating, but it's full of empty calories and the more of it I consumed, the less I enjoyed it.   

Thursday, September 22, 2022



There is not going to be any suspense in this review, I will tell you right off the bat that this was a disappointment. It should not have been, but the writing, which is so good in the first act, falls off in quality and logic in the third act, and like so many horror films, it is the payoff that screws up the film. The slow burn opening gets wasted by a series of non-sensical events at the end. I just saw "See How They Run" and the director in that story wanted to rewrite the ending of Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap". There is a scene in that movie where a series of storyboards shows the direction he wanted to take. The makers of this movie must have a similar set of storyboards from the same trite minds that think all horror films have to end the same way. 

What is so promising at the start of the first section, gets added too in a second section, where it looks like we might be going into a different kind of barbaric act, featuring a non-horror situation. The character played by Justin Long, is getting a Hollywood cancellation  moment, and it looks at first as if it is going to take a unique perspective on that circumstance. The financial and professional ruin of an actor on the brink of sitcom stardom, is the event that drives this character into the scenario we saw played out at the start of the movie. Sadly, it is not to be that an injustice is giving sympathy to a potential victim. Instead, the movie plays this storyline out as a comeuppance. So again what was unique and potentially intriguing gets washed away in an act of woke contrition. 

Technically, the horror elements that are visualized are done quite well. There are a couple of jump scares and some mild gore to establish the violence bona fides of the film. It is not the acts of violence and mayhem that are the most horrifying moments however. There are three standout visual images that will really haunt you, if anything from the movie does. In a flashback sequence, we see the machinations of a serial killer/rapist/kidnapper. The point of view from behind him as he shops for products to facilitate his actions is disturbing. When we see the casual way that he gains entry into a future victim's home, it is a terrifying moment that should make every homeowner pause. This whole sequence takes place as we enter the final act. The second visual stunner is the discovery of a room, equipped with a filthy bed and a couple of other items that will induce nightmares without thinking too hard. It is this visage that startles out main protagonist Tess, into the actions that any human being would have, Fight or Flight. Unfortunately, the character has to do the stupid thing that every fan of horror films screams at the screen about, "Don't Do it!", and then she does. In my view however, the most disturbing visual moment takes place in daylight, outdoors, while Tess is in the car driving away from the site of the action. Block after block of abandoned, dilapidated houses roll past her windows. She has stayed in a vacant warzone for a night, and she is lucky to be alive. So once again, living down to the trope of the most basic horror film, what stupid thing does she do? That's right, she goes back to that neighborhood, after being warned, with the plan to spend another night there. 

Georgina Campbell is Tess, who is so smart, alert and wise on that first night. Her spider-senses tingle and she takes appropriate action, until it is time for her to do something, she herself has said not to do. Last summer there was a horror film based on a single word that every person in a frightening situation ignores "Nope". She literally says it out loud, and within two minutes does it anyway. Bill Skarsgård plays a sympathetic red herring. We are supposed to be suspicious of him but we get won over. His character goes from solicitous with Tess to dismissive for no good reason other than to make us doubt him, but it was inconsistent with the way the character had been presented in the slow burn. AJ, the Justin Long character can be forgiven his stupidity at first, he is distracted, but if he is engaged enough to complain on the phone to the worst property manager in the Detroit area, you would think he could pick up the bad vibes in the house location immediately. So basically, the three main characters are too stupid to avoid the risk right in front of them with the flashing yellow sign.

Finally in the climax, like all horror films, the monster is indestructible, and we are also asked to sympathize at the same time that murder is going on in front of our eyes. Horror films need to start working backwards. Figure out your ending before to write the opening. When you expend all the energy and creativity on the set up, whatever you have left gets used on the payoff, and it isn't enough. There was a lot to like about the movie, but all that is gold gets cancelled by acts of stupidity, improbability,  out right cliché, and the impossible. Catch it on shudder next month. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

See How They Run


It's not everyday you get a real farce on the big screen. Lots of films have elements of farce and are quite enjoyable as a consequence. In the last year I would say "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" and "Free Guy" are two examples of action films that have farcical moments in them. Most Wes Anderson films also feature the concept of a light, humorous play in which the plot depends upon a skillfully exploited situation rather than upon the development of character. "See How They Run" has the advantage of actually being a film about a play, which is eventually revealed to be a sort of play in itself. That is what makes it a true farce as far as I am concerned. 

The story concerns a murder that takes place during a negotiation to turn "The Mousetrap" into a movie. Those of you not familiar with the play simply need to know that it is an Agatha Christie murder mystery. It is also the longest running play in the history of theater, starting in 1952 and still playing on the West End in London to this day. This movie is not a filmed version of the play, but rather a take off on the plat, using "The Mousetrap" as a sort of touchstone or spine for the mayhem. It mocks the machinations of old Hollywood and they manner in which film makers try to take material and rework it to their own vision. The real clause in the contract granting rights to a cinematic version, states that such a film cannot be made until six months after the play closes in London. See how this is going to work?

Making use of techniques used by movies over the years, this film starts off being narrated by the stereotypical victim of these kinds of drawing room mysteries. The performance of Adrien Brody is fitfully droll and sarcastic, with just a little bit of surprise thrown in. The fact that he is in the film explains why his character is resurrected for several flashback scenes. Those kinds of scenes are also mocked in the film in a self reference that will be seen time and again in the movie. No spoiler here, but when you see the climax of the film, you will laugh out loud, hard.

The historical context of the story adds some fun twists to a murder mystery that is as convoluted as any written by Christie herself. I enjoyed having Richard Attenborough played on screen as a young actor treading the boards in the play. The Hollywood Cliché of the producer is only partially exploited, but the film director tries to compensate by being a cad and attempting seduction by casting whenever he can. Once the murder has occurred, the real stars of the film and the source of the greatest comic moments show up. Sam Rockwell is doing a Gary Oldman impression of a fifties era detective inspector. He is great playing the detached slightly alcoholic run of the mill, hardworking detective. He is partnered with eager beaver Constable Saoirse Ronan, who comically takes notes, jumps to conclusions and also plays the hero. There are bad puns, slamming doors, slightly missed moments when trailing a suspect, all of which will provoke a chuckle here and there. 

This sort of thing is hard to pull off in a film. So many times what works on stage simply seems frenetic on screen, but here the pacing is cool enough to let us enjoy the oddball characters and the silly assumptions. The final result is a charming little mystery that lampoons it's own roots in a gently comic way, and evokes enough laughter to justify going out to a theater to see it. I was pleased that the Tuesday Discount brought out a good sized crowd for this movie. It's great to hear laughter from a collective of souls in the dark.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2022



It was just six months ago that I saw "X", which so far continues to be my favorite film of the year. At the end of the film was a teaser for a sequel, and lo and behold, here it is, just half a year later. Director Ti West is swinging for the fences and I approve of the effort, but this film is not an out of the park homerun like it's predecessor. It is instead a long fly ball to center field that misses the fence but gets you standing for a couple of seconds, thrilled at the prospect if not entirely happy with the result. "Pearl" is not essential to the original story, but it is an interesting trail to follow and there are some great moments to recommend it, even if it isn't a true gem.

West has a take on these films that I think is really interesting. He is modeling the style of the movie to the times that it is set in. This worked extremely well in the 70s based "X", with it's grungy porn milieu and pacing like a slow burn horror film of that decade. "Pearl" is set in 1918, and the silent films of that era are a little hard to model your film on and still use modern equipment and storytelling. This is not a silent film, but it is a melodrama with over the top moments, long pauses on a frame in anticipation of an action, and some cutesy cinematic moments to make the movie feel old fashioned.  In a spot on reflection, the pandemic of Spanish flu serves as a reminder that the Covid-19 situation we find ourselves in, was not the first time that paranoia lead to extreme behavior in trying to avoid the illness. 

In an isolated farmhouse, Pearl lives with a domineering mother of German descent, who frequently lapses into her native tongue when admonishing her daughter. Also in the house is her father, disabled by the pandemic in such a way as to lock him in a wheelchair and render him incapable of speech. At first Pearl seems the quintessential farm girl, talking to the cow and goat, both of which she has given names to. It doesn't take long however to discover that there is something not quite right about her. In spite of her random moments of cruelty, we sympathize with her because the mother's oppression seems overwhelming and Pearl does have a husband at war, who professes his love quite beautifully in letters that he writes to her from the front in Europe. Like many young women, she dreams of stardom on the screen, in her case as a dancer. Her innocent dress up and performance for animals in the barn or her mirror in the bedroom, are condemned by her mother and she is belittled for being foolish. Later in the movie, we discover that Mom has some idea of the issues that Pearl has. Did she foment those tendencies by her attitude toward Pearl, or did she develop that attitude as a result of what she saw in Pearl? We don't quite know, but we do know it will come to a head. 

The writers of this film are the director and the lead actress, and they have made some interesting choices. For instance, the friendly projectionist might be a predator or simply a man who is looking for connection as a lonely bohemian. He does not take advantage of Pearl so much as she takes advantage of him. We get foreshadowing of this in a way that also warns us again that Pearl is not necessarily stable, despite her prim demeanor at times. When the violence starts, there is no doubt that it is coming from a dark place in Pearl rather than a reaction provoked by the people she encounters. At the climax of the film, the innocent and supportive character is the target of her delusion and rage and there is no excusing it. 

Over the course of the film, the techniques to mimic the era are less noticeable and successful. What seemed like a slow burn in the 70s era horror in the first film, feels like needless meandering in this melodramatic potboiler. Pearl pursues her dream with a distorted perception of the circumstances she is operating in. We don't see all the girls that she is competing with, but we do see both her performance and her self reflection of that performance. There are fantasy inserts that might seem like they fit a late 1920s musical, but they are confusing in this story. Pearl's imagination spills over into the real world, and I guess that is supposed to give us insight into how she is thinking, but it is an artistic choice that muddles the narrative. 

Just as things are coming to a head, and you think the film will finish on a conventional note, we get served a surprise that makes the whole movie worthwhile. Actress Mia Goth has been magnetic in the role up to this point, but she suddenly becomes hypnotic. She has a six or seven minute scene that is shot in one continuous take, never cutting to another character but always focusing on her. Like the great monologue from Quint in "Jaws", we are pulled into a confessional story that is horrifying, revealing and compelling. Mia Goth holds us in her hand the way Robert Shaw did, for a full six minutes, and we will not be able to turn away. Look, this is a horror film done on a budget without a lot of economic impact on the film business, but if the people who give acting awards don't take some notice of Mia Goth this year, they are in essence admitting that their awards are not for performance but for politics. This scene is both heartbreaking and horrifying, and it is all on Mia Goth in her voice and face. 

Nearly matching Mia Goth is actress Tandi Wright, who plays the Mother, Ruth. She is stern and frightening at times, but ultimately conveys that she is the one most frightened. The make-up, hair dressing and costumes turn her into visage of dominating truculence. She also has a moment of monologue that gives her a chance to shine. It is not as long and it is not entirely focused on her, but is is noteworthy and it is a great companion performance to Goth's unhinged innocent. 

So, "Pearl" does not reach the heights that "X"did, but it is nevertheless a worthy follow up and it leaves me looking forward to the third film in the series "Maxxxine" which will be set in the 1980s and already seems poised to get that vibe correct, based on a short teaser at the end of this film. Maybe these movies are being made for a cult audience, I guess it turns out that I am part of that cult.