Archive for June, 2011


Can we just talk about this a little more? Please?

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Twelve Angry Men (1957). Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay by Reginald Rose, from his prior teleplay. Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, others. 96 minutes. ****

12 (in Russian with Subtitles Available; 2007). Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov, Alexander Novotsky-Vlasov, Vladimir Moiseenko, based on original screenplay by Reginald Rose. One third of the actors on the jury have the first name Sergei, and two others are named Alexei; it must have been fun whenever one got a phone call. 157 minutes. **

Others Mentioned Here But Not Discussed At Length: Twelve Angry Men (TV-movie directed by William Friedkin, 1997).

Other Known Versions: The original TV production (1954); Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (Hindi, 1986); many many other parodies and imitations.

*

The boy is on trial for his life. He has been accused of the brutal stabbing death of his father, and though he maintains his innocence, almost no exculpatory evidence has been introduced, and he is almost certainly facing a trip upstate. It’s a foregone conclusion. For the most part, the all-male jury looks forward to a quick vote, an immediate return to the courtroom,  and from there a quick return to their everyday lives. But one juror isn’t so sure. He thinks that the matter is too serious for such casual disposal…and as he persuades his resentful fellow jurors to take a second look, more and more cracks appear in the prosecution’s case. It begins to look like the boy might be innocent after all. But some members of the jury are emotionally invested in a guilty verdict…and it becomes unclear whether justice, of any kind, is at all possible.

This was the premise of Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay Twelve Angry Men, and of the classic 1957 film directed by Sidney Lumet. A financial disappointment for star and co-producer Henry Fonda, it built its reputation with later TV showings and is now considered a major, influential classic. It was also the first theatrical film of the towering Sidney Lumet, who was among other things one of the great New York City directors and who, over the next fifty years, managed the admirable feat of directing at least one, and sometimes more than one, capital-G Great film per decade. (That list of one great film per decade would, according to this lifelong admirer, include Twelve Angry Men in the 1950s, The Pawnbroker and The Hill in the 1960s, Serpico, Murder On the Orient Express,  Dog Day Afternoon, and Network in the 1970s, Prince of the City in the 1980s, Q & A in the 1990s, and his last movie Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead in the 2000s…and that’s before you start listing films that miss greatness by a hair or those like Fail-Safe or The Verdict that are merely very, very good.) It is part of our culture, and the latest word has it that it’s about to be remade again. We therefore take this opportunity to discuss both the original, which can be seen as a dramatization of what’s so great about America…and a recent version that can be seen as a dramatization of everything that’s gone wrong in Russia.

One point before we continue: readers of these essays always risk being exposed to plot spoilers, but this is especially true of what follows, and particularly in its coverage of the 2007 film. Beware.

Twelve Angry Men (1957)

Movie fans who want to know the difference between what a screenwriter does and what a director does could be profitably directed to this film.

The story, essentially a two-hour argument where the jurors supporting a not guilty verdict gradually break down and overcome the opposition of those who want the kid to go to jail, was all on paper long before Sidney Lumet ever got involved; what he added in this, his very first theatrical film, was a superb mastery of the form that over the course of 96 grueling minutes gradually moves the POV of most shots closer and closer to table-level, increasing the tension and the sense that all of the jurors are stuck with one another. He’s the one who makes this an astonishingly fluid and stylish film for one largely set all in one room, and it manages the trick long before the days of queasy shakicams and swooping, spinning, 360 degree pans. That is all Lumet, with his cinematographer Boris Kaufman and his editor Carl Lerner. Please note that it is not showy direction; the average moviegoer will never be consciously aware of Lumet’s craft. But it’s there. It can be felt, and it ratchets up the suspense to the breaking point.

Similarly, movie fans who want a primo demonstration of the importance of star power need look no further than the introduction of Juror #8 (Fonda), initially the only one who even wants to subject the evidence to discussion. He is the last one whose face we see, after the jury files into the room and everybody else expends the next few minutes in idle conversation and joking around; at the moment when he’s called to the table for deliberation, having spent the last few minutes gazing out the window in silent contemplation, he turns around and reveals himself for the first time as Fonda, from The Grapes Of Wrath and The Ox-Bow Incident onward an icon of American rectitude, and instantly the guy the movie audience wants to win. (Jack Lemmon, who played the same role in William Friedkin’s 1997 TV version, played decent men as often as Fonda did, and for all his talent couldn’t match the impact of Fonda’s big turn-around.)

The movie also benefits from being superbly cast. Any list of who’s superb here will amount to a simple recitation of the entire jury, but special attention should be paid to Lee J. Cobb, as the bullying juror #3, who is just as quickly the guy the audience will want to see lose; and to E.G. Marshall, as Juror #4, another antagonist who happens to be the most level-headed, logically-driven person in the room; he never raises his voice and, until a memorable moment late in the film, never sweats. (There’s also Jack Klugman, who just a few years later played tribute to this movie with another deadlocked-jury story on an episode of his sitcom, The Odd Couple.)

The movie is filled with cheer-worthy moments. What audience doesn’t feel tremendous satisfaction when the old man changes his vote to support Juror #8?  What audience doesn’t cheer when  Juror #4 interrupts another’s bigoted rant by telling him to sit down and not open his mouth again?

One of the best shut-up moments in any movie, ever.

Really.  It’s like an action movie, with arguments instead of gunfights, so pleasurable with every frame that some viewers, this essayist included, can see it dozens of times with undiminished appreciation.

It’s so very terrific, in toto, that just making this next observation is extraordinarily painful.

It is also incredibly contrived.

It has to be. All courtroom dramas are. It’s one thing if they’re based on actual court cases, where the transcripts exist; but if concocted, they by necessity compress into an hour or two or at most three the high points of what is, in real life, often a mind-numbingly dull process, with testimony given in monotones and long stretches spent in wrangling over evidentiary minutiae. Creating an effective courtroom drama almost always depends on the careful concealment of, and timely unveiling of, straw men:  obstacles that seem fatal but aren’t, evidence that seems iron-clad but isn’t, a closing argument that seems to put the final nails in the opposing side’s coffin but nevertheless leaves room for a rhetorical flourish that makes everything before it seem flimsy and stupid. In Twelve Angry Men, it’s the pile of evidence implicating a kid in the stabbing-death of his father – a case that Reginald Rose carefully designed to look air-tight at first, but to which he also carefully attached serious reasons to doubt.

Everything depends on the writer’s deliberate placement of these straw men; if Henry Fonda’s character had not been able to buy an identical switchblade after the police failed, if the elderly witness had not been dragging a leg, if the woman across the street not rubbed the bridge of her nose in court, or even if the jurors had not changed their minds with the regularity that they did, the defendant would be on the first train upstate.  In that sense, at least, Twelve Angry Men functions not as  an indictment of our legal system, but as a fond tribute to the efficacy of having the case against you designed by an omnipotent screenwriter who wants it to fall apart at the first gust of strong wind. This has been discussed, at length, but Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who as an educator also characterized the independent investigation of Juror #8 as likely grounds for a mistrial. (And, by the way, if you want another case of a courtroom drama artfully hiding the fact that it all depends on a screenwriter carefully hiding straw men – in this case evidence that’s been squirreled away by the culprits, that the defense attorney protagonist uncovers at the last minute — look no further than that other Lumet drama, The Verdict.)

None of that matters all that much. The case may be designed to fall apart, but it’s designed to fall apart in a suspenseful manner, driven by the characters of the jurors; and it’s designed to fall apart in a manner than remains inconclusive at the end, leaving open the possibility that the kid might have killed his Dad after all.

William Friedkin’s 1997 version pretty much hits the same story points, with a just-as-impressive cast that included in addition to Lemmon such powerhouses as George C. Scott and Ossie Davis; it is effective enough, but lacks Lumet’s brilliant staging. On the plus side, we are no longer talking about Twelve Angry White Men, and indeed one of its more audacious touches is casting a young Black man, Mykelti Williamson, in the role of the film’s vengeful bigot. On the negative is the one reason we bring it up, the odd casting glitch that presents us with a large number of elderly men among the jurors, not just Lemmon and Scott but also Ossie Davis and Hume Cronyn. This is only an issue because, as in the original, much is made of Juror # 3 being scolded failing to show the proper amount of respect toward the frail and lonely retiree, Juror # 9. That makes a small degree of sense when Lee. J. Cobb, circa 1957, is being upbraided for the way he treats the “old man,” Joseph Sweeney;  less so when George C. Scott, circa 1997, is told off for the way he treats old men like Hume Cronyn. They’re both old men, and it’s downright surreal when another old man, Ossie Davis, makes noises that  seem to regard Cronyn, who’s admittedly somewhat older, as ancient by comparison. Look around you, people. If you count Armin Mueller-Stahl, who was 67 at the time and the youngest of this group by several years, almost half the jury is eligible for social security.

12 (2007)

This award-winning Russian remake, which intends to be not just an examination of the elusiveness of justice in a system that depends on the fairness of human beings serving on juries, but also a harsh examination of the current state of Russian society, is a full hour longer – and a slog even for those of us who normally have little problem with lengthy films. Things just take longer they need to, and many of the jurors stop everything in order to regale everybody with long, dramatic soliloquys about their backstories, a number of which end with the jaw-dropping conclusion, “And that’s why I’m changing my vote to Not Guilty.” (Really? You rip off mourners at the cemetery where you work, use the money to fund schools, and that’s why you’re changing your mind? Really? That’s…um….different.)

Nobody in the film reacts to these extended personal monologues the way human beings would. Oh, sure, the other jurors ask leading questions like, “Why are you telling us this?”, but that just gives the speakers an excuse to continue talking. In real life, one or two of these might be tolerated, but as the tension level rose, somebody would react to the latest with an exasperated, “Oh, great. Now he’s starting.” Instead, everybody always freezes and allows the soliloquys to play out. I can’t be any clearer than this: in real life, eventually, they wouldn’t.

Also taking up time: a substantial number of flashbacks to the childhood of the young defendant, a Chechen orphan accused of killing his Russian stepfather.  It is a past that includes huddling in a dark basement filled with corpses, and for what it’s worth these war scenes are both horrific and well-staged…but even the best-staged scenes can be tiresome if they interrupt the story we care about, and these serve to dilute the overpowering narrative momentum of the original, which takes place in something resembling real time. In 12, we leave the jurors regularly to  catch up on some more images from the defendant’s tragic life, and return to clear indications that substantial time has passed for the members of the jury and that we’ve missed some of their deliberations. (If what we’ve missed amounted to more monologues, then this can be counted as a mercy.) As an extra added treat, we are shown a skirmish from the war in Chechnya, where many rounds of automatic weapons fire are exchanged between two buildings while the boy presses himself flat in the rubble-strewn street between them;  thus making this the last thing anybody ever expected in this universe, a somewhat defensible remake of Twelve Angry Men with explosions in it.

That deserves repetition. This is a defensible remake of Twelve Angry Men with explosions in it.

Not exactly claustrophobic.

That’s a remarkable achievement. I guess.

The sacrifice of the original’s claustrophobic setting extends to this film’s jury room, the gymnasium of a run-down high school. The jury members have plenty of room to move about, and sometimes wander far from the central table. This, surprisingly, works, and not just because the basketball tossed by one near the beginning, that refuses to fall through the netless rim and instead just lodges against the backboard, as clear a symbol of the belated verdict as anybody could have ever arranged. Much is made of the exposed heating pipe in the ceiling, and the broken window temporarily blocked off by a cement bag that, one juror discovers, has been there for decades. All around them sit manifestations of a nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and the widespread corruption that permits it. One juror, screwing around, discovers a hypodermic needle in a kid’s locker, while another discovers and oohs over an abandoned brassiere, and yes, both discoveries are part of it. There’s another nice touch involving the school’s upright piano, which is stored behind iron bars, and which a couple of the jurors manage to play anyway; you couldn’t buy more potent symbolism than that.

We must also give props to this film’s bailiff, who unlike the glorified prop of the original film is actually a living and breathing personality, who uses the jury’s confiscated cell phones to make his own calls, and reacts with open, comic, and a precisely modulated level of confusion to the antics going on in the jury room. We don’t get any more of the him than the film needs, just enough. And that is a plus.

The murder, and the means by which the various members of the jury poke holes in what had seemed an airtight case, are similar to the ones originally posited by Reginald Rose. We get the supposedly unique knife used in the crime, the limping old man from downstairs who says he witnessed the boy’s flight but couldn’t have, the unlikelihood of the boy blithely returning to the scene of the crime hours after the killing, and even the woman with compromised eyesight who claims to have witnessed the murder from across the street. There is no passing elevated train, but that’s a difficult story element to translate to Moscow and a loud construction site works just as well. The unlikelihood of a boy used to handling knives stabbing a much taller man with a downward thrust also comes up, and that scene is, here, wonderful; the proper method of knife-handling is demonstrated by a surgeon among the jurors who happens to be a Chechen himself and who turns out to be a frightening wizard with a blade. Some of the dramatics work identically, as well; for instance, the main antagonist is a bully of a juror who has issues involving his relationship with his own son, though the details are very different (and are related in the last and best of the film’s many extended monologues).

Some of the character stuff is genuinely hilarious. The cemetery guy is eager to get back to his hot 21 year old wife, who according to him looks like Angelina Jolie. He has had three wet dreams in three consecutive nights, thinking of her. He demands to know of his fellow jurors whether they still have wet dreams at their age. (To the film’s credit, this results in helpless laughter on the part of everybody.)  The film’s bully keeps attacking the film’s elderly Jew, who just takes it with a knowing amusement that would infuriate any bigot more than any tirade. This is good stuff.

But that’s all before we get to some of the strangest and most extreme departures from Reginald Rose’s original story.

You have already been provided with a spoiler warning. Proceed past this sentence at your own risk.

One juror puts together the evidence and comes up with an alternative theory that not only fits the facts, but seems to be the story’s objective truth: i.e. the father was murdered, the boy framed, and the elderly witness downstairs paid off, by the construction company working on the building next door, that wanted to force them all out of their homes. The police and the prosecution have been paid off to see to it that the boy is railroaded.

Again, that deserves repetition.

This is a version of Twelve Angry Men where the jurors actually solve the crime.

Subsequently, the foreman, a retired ex-intelligence officer who has said almost nothing during the film, reveals that he put together this theory almost immediately and still intends to vote guilty, as the boy has nowhere to go and will certainly be assassinated by the true culprits if freed. In prison, at least, he will live longer. He asks the others if they’ll take responsibility for the boy’s future now, knowing what they know. They all demur, as they all have lives to live. He reluctantly joins them in a Not Guilty verdict. At the end, post-trial, he not only tells the defendant that he knows what really happened and that he will not rest until the true killers are exposed…he tells the kid to come home with him.

That also deserves repetition.

This is a version of Twelve Angry Men where the foreman of the jury adopts the defendant.

I can’t be any clearer than this. 12 is a well-meaning and in many ways admirable version of the basic story, that tries to adapt the story skeleton for its own entirely defensible purposes. But  The film’s several cogent observations about life in modern-day Russia notwithstanding, these touches make 12 about as ludicrous a re-imagining as we’ve seen at any point, even in the age of remakes.

The Verdict

Twelve Angry Men: an incredibly contrived, but brilliantly told film. 12: a lumpy and ludicrous but frequently powerful report on the state of life in Russia today.

And now, the wife produces an identical switchblade from her jacket pocket and stabs it into the table…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Twelve Angry Men (1957). Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay by Reginald Rose, from his prior teleplay. Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, others. 96 minutes.****

12 (in Russian with Subtitles Available; 2007). Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov, Alexander Novotsky-Vlasov, Vladimir Moiseenko, based on original screenplay by Reginald Rose. One third of the actors on the jury have the first name Sergei, and two others are named Alexei; it must have been fun whenever one got a phone call. 157 minutes.**1’2

Other Known Versions: The original TV production (1954); the William Friedkin TV-movie remake (1997); Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (Hindi, 1986); many many other parodies and imitations.

In my nearly 30 years working in and around court rooms and juries, I could never imagine a juror able to bring a weapon into the jury room.  That being said, I have seen many odd bits of evidence in both civil and criminal trials. (OK, for you dying to know, everything from a human leg to a 1960’s era VW Beetle, not to mention a life size replica of a male plaintiff’s genitalia with removable parts to demonstrate his injuries!)  But, after viewing these films, I wonder if screenwriters have a clue how juries really work.

I have seen the group who just want to get it over with, the group who want to sock it to the insurance company, the group who actually care and the jury that can’t understand a darn thing!  The twelve men in our tales all begin as the primary and in the 1957 actually come full circle back to that with only their verdict changed.  The jurists in the Russian film not only want the whole deal over with, they obviously also want group therapy.  It seems the 2007 theme was we can heal ourselves by freeing the boy.

The Lumet-directed piece plays tight and tense, the climate in the room mirroring the temperament and tenor of the deliberations.  The claustrophobic conditions only add to the exquisite morality play we witness.  But, alas, it feels like a play.  In my reality, the single hold out would have either been abused verbally and possibly physically, or requested to be excused before the abuse could begin.  Seldom will one person be persuasive enough to sway eleven others,  and in this case his opening gambit would never have been able to work.  This is an idealization of the jury process, not the truth of the fallibility of our justice system.

The Russian piece, while hitting all the salient points, doesn’t have the edge to make it work.  Again, we are dealing with prejudice and poverty, but this version needs to show us the depravity that the accused boy has lived through and the ongoing horror of his continued existence.  Ok, great, but that’s not the story of justice served.  The added sequences (including the repetition of the wet dog) do nothing to move the story forward and in my opinion bogs it down enough to cause serious  breaks in what should have been some decent dramatic scenes.  Yes, we are dealing with these twelve guys trying to work out their own problems through this deliberation, but the sense of urgency, the need to get this right, just doesn’t feel present here.  The very fact that life or death is not only based on the verdict, but what happens afterward, blows the premise of the play to shreds.

I have been the fool left “babysitting” the jury.  Hours spent sitting, running questions to the judge, getting evidence and meals. But, I have also been a juror. These idealized versions of courts and juries just don’t cut it, but then, truth is much more boring than fiction (in most cases).


Over at Fangoria.


If you’re gonna bend the rules of nature, for God’s sake pay attention!

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Frankenstein aka Edison’s Frankenstein (1910). Directed by J. Searle Dawley. Written by J. Searle Dawley, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller. 16 minutes. **.

Frankenstein (1931). Directed by James Whale. Written by Frances Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, from the play by Peggy Webling and novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, John Boles, Mae Clarke.  71 minutes. ****

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by Jimmy Sangster, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart. 83 minutes. ***

Frankenstein aka Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, John Cleese. 123 minutes. ** 1/2

Other Versions and Sequels: Too many to list, including a large number of sequels to both the 1931 and 1957 versions, TV-movies, breakfast serials, sitcoms like The Munsters and parodies like Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

*

Even if you know better, the first image to leap into your mind is almost certainly the wrong one.

Somebody says “Frankenstein,” and before you can remind yourself that Frankenstein was actually the name of the irresponsible (not necessarily “mad”) scientist, you flash on the image of the creature first embodied on film by the actor who was, in the opening credits at least, listed only as “?”: a hulking, flat-faced, walking corpse with bolts on his neck and a primal aversion to fire.

People persist in calling the guy with the clodhopping boots and dialogue that consists of a large number of variations on “Urrrrrrhhh!” Frankenstein, even after sequels like Son of Frankenstein (1939) took pains to include scenes that – showing a fair degree of irritation on the part of the screenwriters – explained the elemental difference to the audience one more time.

It’s probably a losing battle. To the public at large, the monster stitched together from various scavenged corpses will always have a name that sounds Jewish.

In truth, though, the nigh-total colonization of our collective imaginations by the 1931 version of the story, even among those of us who have never seen it and only know the various ways in which its central image has been echoed and repeated all the way down to the present day, the makeup first worn on-screen by one Boris Karloff is no more definitive a portrait of Frankenstein’s monster than any other. Mary Shelley, the remarkable teenager who first told the story, did not describe him in exhaustive detail. She simply wrote that he was about eight feet tall, horrific in appearance, and possessed a withered, translucent, yellowish skin that barely concealed his musculature and blood vessels. In the novel, as in several later versions, its unparalleled ugliness is what drove Frankenstein to suddenly come to his senses and flee in revulsion, leaving his creature to wander the earth alone, be treated with hatred and fear wherever it went, educate itself through a remarkably convenient encounters with books, and ultimately hate the man who brought it into existence only to abandon it;  but having provided us with a modicum of description, Shelley then leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination, trusting us to envision a horror more personal than any we ever could.

This is of course not an option for moviemakers, who may tease the monster but must ultimately show him to us, ultimately giving us the opportunity to grow used to his grotesque features and perhaps grow to love them. In 1931, when Boris Karloff first appeared on screen as the monster, first backing into the room and then turning around to reveal his horrid visage, some audience members passed out in fright. By the time this essayist grew up in the 1960s, the same makeup formed the face of bumbling, loveable Herman Munster, in a sitcom suitable for small children.  The Karloff version and its sequel used the decreasing impact borne of familiarity to fine dramatic effect. Others took an entirely different tack. The differences are remarkable given that they all started with the same source material, which to date has never been interpreted with complete fidelity.

“Edison’s Frankenstein” (1910)

The 1910 version was not, as some fanciful accounts would have it, “directed by Thomas Edison.” It was produced at a studio owned by Thomas Edison, whose company briefly produced films to go along with its motion picture cameras and projectors. An actual Edison-directed Frankenstein would be an interesting artifact; perhaps it would consist of backdated blueprints the company could use in a patent grab. Full-length motion pictures still lay in the future, thanks to the new technology’s status as toy and the widespread belief that nobody would ever sit still for any movie much more than ten minutes long, so the story is told in broad strokes, with acting that largely consists of outstretched hands and extreme pantomime, giving modern eyes the impression that nobody in these early films ever said anything unless they wanted to proclaim it to the heavens.

Thanks to the volatility and low life expectancy of silver nitrate film, as well as the blind belief by early dabblers in the form that the art was disposable and that any films that had completed their theatrical runs could be burned for their silver content, this nevertheless important artifact was considered lost for decades, before it turned up in the hands of a private collector. It still shows the ravages of time, unfortunately, but it can be followed with a little close attention.  Here, for your pleasure, we imbed the entire epic.

 

Because the images no longer possess the clarity they once did, we also provide this still of Charles Ogle as the monster.

 


  

Looking back on this film a full century later, it is very possible to find grounds for laughter. The acting style is only part of it. For instance, Frankenstein’s letter to his beloved is downright funny to modern eyes, especially his tight-assed signature, “Frankenstein.” (Elizabeth must swoon.) But despite its crudeness, the film is clearly still capable of evoking chills and magic, even today. That scene of the monster’s creation, a brilliant early special effect, was accomplished by burning a wax figure of the monster in a furnace and then showing the footage in reverse. As a result, it seems to congeal, the pieces coming together out of thin air (or someplace far more terrible), and joining a human form that is neither born nor stitched together, but somehow, terribly, summoned. And its pathetic death, an outright rejection of its plans to disrupt Frankenstein’s wedding that attaches an additional level of the fantastic with its disappearance inside a full-length mirror, possesses a wan pathos that was only exceeded by the next, and still most famous version.

James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931)

You’ve got to say one thing about the James Whale version: as infected as some of its key sequences have been by all the parodies and homages it has seen since, it still possesses a remarkable power, most notably in this key scene that was considered so horrific in 1931 that it was soon cut from all theatrical prints and was not permanently restored for decades.

 

 

The version this essayist always saw on WPIX, growing up, was also the only one that most people my age got to see for years: it ended with a remarkably clumsy cut, just as the monster (Boris Karloff) reached for poor little Maria, and cut away to happy Henry Frankenstein’s wedding preparations. The rationale behind this was that the drowning of the little girl was far too horrific for any audiences to ever want to sit through. (Think of that in the age of Hostel, and marvel.)  One effect of the cut is, of course, that the audience is then free to imagine a fate far more horrific than anything that was shown on-screen in the first place. You could even, if you choose, imagine violations greater than a mere tragic accident, at the hands of an overpowered infant who never meant the little girl any harm.

It is worth noting that by the time this scene takes place, Karloff’s monster has already committed two murders: one of Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant Fritz (played by Dwight Frye, who was deeply typecast in roles like this), and one of Frankenstein’s old mentor Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). The careful exposition about the accidental use of an abnormal brain aside, both occur after the monster has been abused, imprisoned, chained, and terrified. He is an infant, trapped in a world he cannot understand, and lashing out because Frankenstein, the irresponsible fool, has never made sure that the sadistic Fritz can be trusted not to torment the seven-foot-tall powerhouse with lit torches. But now? Treated with warmth by somebody too innocent to know that she should be afraid, he is charmed; he is delighted; he shows that he is capable of responding to kindness. The drowning of the little girl is an accident no more malicious than a three-year-old spilling a glass of milk, and the censors who cut out the terrible moment in order to protect the audience’s sensibilities also robbed those audiences of one of the greatest moments of Boris Karloff’s career: the creature’s bereft, despairing horror upon realizing what it has done.

Placing this scene after the two prior murders has the effect of also underlining the terrible thing Frankenstein has done. Everybody who watches the movie understands that the monster is a monster, but also knows that it has a soul, and that is soul is in pain, and that Frankenstein has done it a tremendous disservice by making every possible error he could, after successfully bringing it to life.

(Nor is this a narrative accident. James Whale’s far superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, provides the same lesson by allowing the monster – again, after a murder or two – to encounter another innocent capable of treating him with kindness, this one an aged blind man who delights in the arrival of a vagabond who can benefit from his hospitality, and wisdom. In that movie, the monster is so moved by the first real warmth he’s ever felt from a human being that he weeps. This is naturally ruined by the arrival of sighted relatives who can see what the new houseguest looks like, but again, the lesson is clear: the so-called monster is not unambiguously evil, but a powerful, untamed child who probably deserved much better from the life Frankenstein bequeathed him.)

As for the story itself, it’s told with remarkable narrative economy. We open with Frankenstein already deeply involved in nasty business that includes the robbing of graves. Ten minutes in, we know that he’s up to nefarious doings, and what that involves. Twenty minutes in, we know that he’s virtually abandoned his fiance in order to pursue his madness, and we know that he’s about to start to create life. Thirty minutes in – after a creation scene that has never been equaled, not in all the years that followed – the monster is alive. Having only seventy minutes to tell your story in has some advantages, in the same way that a short story provides advantages over a big fat novel: your story needs to eschew the fat. The climax begins, plays out, and is over in ten minutes, wonderfully effective and startling to those of us living in an age when the final battle between hero and villain involves a battle’s worth of explosion and about ten or twenty reversals. (Which are rarely as effective as this film’s brief moment of chilling eye contact between creature and creator, through the machinery of the old windmill.)

This is not the same thing as saying that oddities didn’t arise as a result of some of the shortcuts.

For instance, there’s Elizabeth, who’s played by Mae Clark, the same actress who got mashed by James Cagney’s grapefruit. Frankenstein allows her and Doctor Waldman into his lab, to witness the birth of his creation. This is in large part so Colin Clive’s Frankenstein, overacting wildly to modern eyes, can provide them (and through them, us) with an explanation of what he has done. Okay; so she sees the monster’s birth. The movie glosses over the point so deftly that it’s possible not to notice, but we never do find out what she thinks of her beau’s “accomplishment.” Is she proud? Disgusted? Horrified? No; as far as we can see, she remains fixed on her number one priority, getting her guy out of that lab so the wedding can go ahead as scheduled. This is one focused bridezilla.  Later on, Frankenstein discusses the monster’s doings with other people who know that he’s responsible – while four family servant girls, who always appear on screen together as if they’re joined at the waist, stand within earshot hearing everything that gets said. That, doctor, is no way to safeguard a dire secret. The happy ending, with Frankenstein and Elizabeth enjoying a happy tete-a-tete while his proud father beams, is unlikely in the extreme, and becomes even more unlikely with the sequel.

Still, these are small nits. James Whale’s Frankenstein is one witty and stylish piece of work, that is still deeply entertaining today, and deserves its central place in the pantheon of cinematic Frankensteins. It spawned an immediate sequel that is itself a classic and then a handful of others that, for the most part (the Abbott and Costello outing being the biggest exception) followed the law of diminishing returns. The main problem with those sequels is that, though they abandoned the original, human Frankenstein to follow the various further misadventures of the monster he created (as played in subsequent years by Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, and Glenn Strange),  it abandoned the early canny handling of that  monster’s mistreated soul, as well as the ability to speak he picks up in Bride, and reduces him to a mere lumbering brute, who can be trained to obediently kill on command but is never again the deeply betrayed figure he is in those first two outings. By the third film, Son Of Frankenstein, he is only a McGuffin.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Few actors have had as deep and as lasting an impact on fantastic film as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who entered the genre working for Hammer Films in the 1950s.

Cushing played Doctor Frankenstein in one long-running series of films and Professor Van Helsing in another; he was also Sherlock Holmes, an early Doctor Who and, in Star Wars, the coldhearted son of a bitch who orders the Death Star to blow up Princess Leia’s home world.

If anything, Christopher Lee established an even more remarkable resume, playing Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, Kharis the Mummy, Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft Holmes, the Devil, Death, James Bond’s enemy The Man With the Golden Gun, Rasputin, Dr. Fu Manchu, the murderous swordsman Rochefort in the best Three Musketeers movies,  Willy Wonka’s father, the evil wizard Saruman from Peter Jackson’s Lord Of the Rings movies, and Count Dooku from the lamentable Star Wars prequels. He also had a hilarious cameo in something called The Stupids. Trust me.

Both are on hand for The Curse of Frankenstein, which began Hammer’s own long-running series of Frankenstein movies. It was a series that followed a fascinatingly different course from the Universal franchise; the monster lives and dies (and lives again and dies again) in this first film, but is no  longer a factor in the handful of sequels. Instead of following the further misadventures of the monster as the Universal films did, these sequels all follow the further adventures of the Baron, who not only persists in his experiments after the first time they lead to disaster but each time persists in continuing to make the same elementary mistake, which is to say constantly leaving his creations unattended and thus constantly inviting the disaster that always ensues whenever one wanders off. You would think the guy capable of discerning the one common factor that led to all of his life’s greatest fiascos, but you’d be wrong.

He’s also a far different interpretation of the character than anything the movies have shown before. He’s a bastard. He has no real feeling for any human being but himself, has no problem with committing murders to keep himself well-stocked in body parts, also has no problem with forcing his attentions on women, and – indeed – may be a sadist as well as sociopath. In this film, he murders an elderly savant just to gain access to his brain, and in another scene deliberately locks his pregnant mistress in a room with his murderous creation just because that’s the easiest way of dealing with her threats of blackmail. Subsequent films have him committing crimes just as nasty. In short, it can be said that this series is not about the Frankenstein monster, but about the monster, Frankenstein. The remarkably slow-learning monster, Frankenstein.

 

The closest the series comes to an actual adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, this film takes the form of an extended confession as a haggard imprisoned Frankenstein (Cushing), who is awaiting the guillotine for an initially unspecified crime, tells a priest about his experiments and how they came to ruin. At the end, he goes off to his execution (for the murder of that luckless mistress), without any independent verification outside the flashback; it is very possible to interpret the entire story as the delusion of a common murderer rendered mad by guilt. I prefer to believe that the story is true, especially since it sets up the sequels, but your mileage may vary. Either way, the dramatic arc is the movie-length battle of wills between Frankenstein and his mentor and partner Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), who early on revolts in horror and spends the rest of the movie alternately calling Frankenstein mad and begging him to stop.

It’s good stuff, as far as it goes.  But one thing’s for sure. If the story is indeed supposed to be objectively true, nobody in it acts the way a human being acts. Once he sees disaster coming, Krempe passionately begs Frankenstein’s cousin and fiance Elizabeth (Hazel Court) to leave the house and never come back; he doesn’t explain why, probably to avoid horrifying her, but after some initial anger at him for ever making such a impudent suggestion, she continues to show a level of warmth and affection toward him that seems downright odd coming from any betrothed woman who finds herself nagged about breaking it off by a guy who’s supposed to be her beloved’s best friend. Every woman I’ve ever met would take their guy aside and say, in confidence, “I want you to know that your best friend’s a real creep.” As for Krempe, who storms off in righteous disgust after the monster has already committed a murder, he later returns for the wedding party with a big smile on his face, and nothing but polite interest when his estranged friend Frankenstein tells him that there’s something in the lab that he really ought to see. (And you thought this version’s Frankenstein was a slow learner.)

Cushing’s performance covers a magnitude of sins, even though he’s easily a quarter of a century too old to be playing the driven young genius established by the young boy played by another actor who first hires the already-adult Krempe to be his teacher; by the time Cushing takes over the part, Frankenstein somehow seems to have not only caught up with Krempe in age, but leaped right past him to the point where he’s by now by a couple of decades the older man. (The age issue isn’t nearly as much a problem in the sequels, where it really doesn’t matter that much how old Frankenstein is.) Alas, Christopher Lee is not nearly as good as Cushing, here, because, for the most part, he is not given a character to play. His monster has some moments where it is as put-upon as the Karloff version, but for the most part, he’s a shuffling corpse, who kills reflexively, because he can. Encountering his own version of what is now a recurring theme, the blind man, he just up and kills the guy: not because he’s threatened, not because he’s angry, but because killing is what he does. He kills Frankenstein’s mistress just as reflexively. There is no pathos to play; again, he’s just a McGuffin. This is not fatal to the film, because it happens to be about the Baron, not the monster. But at a mere 83 minutes, the movie isn’t so long that it couldn’t have shoehorned in a few scenes where the monster demonstrated a soul of his own. Frankly, the character deserves it. (His one-sided malice is more forgivable if you buy the interpretation that the entire flashback with the monster is only a function of Frankenstein’s delusions, but, even so: in any movie, the story you’re watching is the story you’re watching, even if it’s only supposed to be a dream sequence.)

One minor point of interest: the film includes a moment where Peter Cushing peers through a magnifying glass, spectacularly enlarging his eye. He also does this a couple of times in his appearances as Sherlock Holmes.  This is no doubt the source of the gag in the Zucker Brothers comedy Top Secret! where a much older Cushing also peers through a magnifying glass and lowers it to reveal that his right eye actually is that grotesquely enlarged. It’s a film-buff joke as well as a funny sight gag. Just thought you ought to know.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

Despite the existence of a TV-movie called Frankenstein: The True Story, which a surprisingly large number of people who haven’t read the novel take at its word and defend as an accurate adaptation of the Shelley novel (apparently operating under the assumption that Shelley really did write about a Frankenstein monster who came out looking beautiful, and only gradually rotted in both mind and body), there has never really been a major filmed version that adapted her story with anything approaching fidelity.
 
This one doesn’t, either. It comes damned close for most of its length, up to and including Elizabeth’s murder at the monster’s hands…at which point it departs radically from the text and throws in a twist that really should have worked better than it did.

Part of the problem is its extended length. In eighty-four years, the changing grammar of cinema has increased the acceptable length of a feature film from just over ten minutes to more than two hours; and that really is fine, but coupled with the film’s mission statement of honoring Shelley, it does spend an awful lot of time on framing material, including the arctic expedition stuck in the ice and the discovery of a dying Dr. Frankenstein, who tells the Captain his story. After that it goes on to detail Frankenstein’s childhood, the death of his mother in childbirth, his declaration of love for his foster sister Elizabeth, his entry into medical school, his interest in unorthodox medicine, his friendship with Henry Clerval, and so on. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it does delay the actual creation of the monster for a long time, and Kenneth Branagh’s direction takes what should have been Masterpiece Theatre  material and treats it with palpably desperate energy, that includes swooping cameras and some of the most intrusive soundtrack music you have ever heard in your life. Had he let the material alone, it might have bored some members of the audience…but as it happens, the desperate over-the-top style alienated even more.

Things pick up a little bit with the creation of the monster. Branagh, who didn’t just direct but also starred as Frankenstein, got a lot of flack at the time for running around with his shirt off – a touch that was largely regarded as narcissism – but one’s got to admit; it does communicate the character’s frenzy. Still, we then get to the problematic birth scene…which culminates in Frankenstein and his creation flopping around, for what seems forever, on a floor soaked with his experiment’s shiny amniotic fluid.  It’s not scary. Some people regarded it as horrifying, and others thought it hilarious, but the audience I saw it with groaned throughout.

The monster is played by Robert De Niro, who was at one point one of the greatest actors alive (even if he now seems to have used up his entire bag of tricks); but though he’s been rendered hideously scarred with canny makeup, the result is not that he looks like an unnatural monster, but like a hideously scarred Robert De Niro. Once he has his first actual conversation, with this movie’s gentle blind man, the distancing effect of the monster makeup is completely spent; in subsequent scenes where is seen from a distance, it almost disappears completely. This, alas, extends to the actual universe of the film. The very first thing the monster does after it escapes from Frankenstein’s workshop is run from a mob; and it’s worth noting that the mob chases him, not because he killed anybody, or because they’re horrified by his appearance, but because they think he’s a sick man, spreading cholera. In short, this is a movie where the Frankenstein monster can pass as a run-of-the-mill ugly guy. 

Further developments including the murder of Frankenstein’s younger brother, the framing of Justine, the monster’s confrontation with his creator and his offer to go away if Frankenstein builds him a mate, all play out as they do in the novel, and, for a time, the movie works at the level it needs to.  (It’s too bad the opening hour doesn’t.)

That is all before we get to the part that is original to the film, the part that you may consider one of the worst scenes in any Frankenstein movie to date, or one of the best; Frankenstein finds his murdered bride and, for what may be the first time, does what Frankenstein would do, create a new monster using her as spare parts, in a doomed, mad and desperate attempt to get her to live again. Only, hideous as she now is, she might now be more suited for the monster than the doctor.

The scene that results is horrible, hilarious, awful and wonderful at the same time. It is not the Frankenstein of Mary Shelley, but the Frankenstein that might have been made by Stuart Gordon; and though some people will never talk to me again because I said this, I confess to adoring it. The problem is that it simply doesn’t fit anything that came before.  It belongs to a campier Frankenstein, a Frankenstein that Kenneth Branagh did not think he was making. If the entire film had been played at that level, he might have had something.

When we return to the icebound ship in the far north and Frankenstein concluding his confession only to die, and after that to the monster hollering, “He was my father!”, it’s all deadly anticlimax, there not to finish the story in any way the audience cares about, but to delay the closing credits. There’s very real genius in the film, but unfortunately, the whole fails to work.

The Doctor’s Notebook

1910 version, a fascinating artifact from a distant time, with some touches of pure genius. 1931 version, a permanent addition to our shared visual language. 1957 version, a flawed but entertaining visit. 1994 version, a misshapen creation with moments of pure genius, and moments of unbelievable awfulness, stitched together to create an unnatural whole.

And now, the wife declaims toward the Heavens as she flips the third switch…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Frankenstein aka Edison’s Frankenstein (1910). Directed by J. Searle Dawley. Written by J. Searle Dawley, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller. 16 minutes. **.(Only based on the techniques used at the time)

Frankenstein (1931). Directed by James Whale. Written by Frances Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, from the play by Peggy Webling and novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, John Boles, Mae Clarke. 71 minutes. ***

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by Jimmy Sangster, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart. 83 minutes. *1/2

Frankenstein aka Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, John Cleese. 123 minutes. ***

Other Versions and Sequels: Too many to list, including a large number of sequels to both the 1931 and 1957 versions, TV-movies, breakfast serials, sitcoms like The Munsters and parodies like Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

 

So, here we are, readying ourselves for the Father’s Day guilt-a-thon, and we decide to review  films retelling the tale of the worst of all dead-beat dads.  Great timing on this one Adam!

The 1931 Frankenstein is one of those films that became an integral part of every American childhood whether they had seen it or not.  Halloween was bombarded with it, kids played run away from the monster, and as Adam has pointed out, even our breakfasts digested it.  The images from the Whale version are iconic and yet soooo wrong.  Did any film version come close to capturing the look and feel of the novel?  Well yes and no, but that’s film in a nutshell.

To begin at the beginning, and I truly mean the beginning, The 1910 Frankenstein is a masterpiece of ingenuity.  The imagination used to create the images is amazing considering the youth of the medium.  However, storytelling has been around since man began to communicate and this doesn’t even come close to the story told in the book.  This version is a bad game of telephone played by children being deliberately vague.  It deserves its place in film history (as do the early Wizards of Oz films) for the mere fact of being the first, not for being a great film.

Then, we get to the 1931, James Whale directed Frankenstein.  Is this truly a great film? Not really.  Again, the story deviates vastly from the source, and much more attention is paid to the look than the plot. But, come on, lets face it.  Who is the face we place with the Creation? In this version we have the Doctor (hmm gives me an idea, but that can wait for another time) creating his child in front of an audience, just to prove himself sane.  Once he completes the task, he turns away in disgust and even joins in the quest to destroy the creature he created.  Why?  because he’s an irresponsible child, too spoiled to realize that he is the one who must take responsibility and care for this being.  His idea is to take the easy way out and destroy the evidence, thus ridding himself of all guilt.  Yea, bury the broken vase deep in the garbage and Mom will never notice.  Good job Herr Doktor!  Oh and spoiler alert,  All is well in the end.  Right!

The next on our list is the awful Hammer film The Curse of Frankenstein.  I feel that the makers of this film should have just said “Hey guys, we were told this story, but can’t really remember much , so we’re gonna make it up as we go.”  Here we have the names and some of the basics, but now we have Frankenstein as a rich orphan, set on creating life with no background motivation other than He wants to do it.  This guy is sleazy.  He has his way with a servant girl, all the time knowing he is going to marry his “cousin”. He not only rejects his creation, he actually imprisons the creature and trains it with torture.  Of course, in this film, he has no father to teach him how to be a Dad.  His father figure is busy being a friend to seemingly keep his cushy position.  After all, he was hired by the master to be his tutor giving him room and board and a salary (we assume) and this goes on past adulthood, would you easily give up that gig? Ok. so the creature gets loose, does the killing thing, is killed, resurrected and killed again.  Frankenstein the man is declared an insane murderer and supposedly sent to his death.  The end.  But this is about life eternal, so of course death(as in superhero comics) is never forever.  Thus , we have the sequels (or series) of the Hammer legacy.

The last film we watched for this essay was the 1994,  Kenneth Branagh directed/starring and scripted by Frank Darabont/Steph Lady.  This version heels the closest to the source material, actually including the pre and post creation scenes. I actually feel that this is the best of the films we viewed for these essays, but still a weak sister for all its pedigree.  While there is nothing  glaringly wrong with the film, it just doesn’t feel satisfying.  The look is right, the script good enough, even Branagh’s direction (mostly of himself) is not too far over the top to kill the feel.  But this film left me wanting another try.  The changes made didn’t weaken the story.  This was only the second time I had been exposed to an intelligent version of the creature on film. (I recommend seeing the TV movie Frankenstein the True Story to give a fair comparision).

Can Hollywood film this parable without overblowing it, or underplaying it?  This is a story that deserves a really great retelling, and the 20 year cycle is coming soon (see the filmography and dates of release).  Anybody wanna try that?


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

 

My love for Laurel and Hardy is well-known, which is why it’s so wonderful, really, that I once, sort, of, got to meet the characters they played.

If you love Laurel and Hardy too, enough to treasure their shorts, you will know that neither character really bullied the other. Sometimes they fought, in those remarkably gentlemanly slow-motion fights where one would pour maple syrup down the other’s pants and the other would lead him over to a circular saw and dismember his hat, but once the point was made and the scales were evened, neither kept the abuse up. (The humor came from neither one being satisfied with letting the other have the last word.)

Still, Hardy was always YELLING at Laurel.

And if you love their short films, you will be baffled by one that doesn’t fit the usual pattern: One Good Turn, where Laurel gets so exasperated at Hardy that he throws a violent fit, throwing stuff at Hardy until Hardy seeks cover in a shed that collapses on top of him.

Not at all what they usually did. More Three Stooges than Laurel and Hardy.

Why would they depart from their formula so dramatically?

Well, there is a home movie that exists, that I have seen, of Stan and Babe at Stan’s home, where Babe affectionately picks up Stan’s pre-school daughter and places her on his lap. The little girl starts screaming and squirming. Babe Hardy laughs indulgently and puts her back down. Even in the five second clip, he is visibly confused over what he did to upset her. This is an actual clip. It is included as a DVD extra in some of their compilations.

As it happens, the little girl grew up, became a woman, and still remembered that very day. She remembered being very conflicted about her Uncle Babe, even though she knew, knew, that he loved her.

The explanation is that she couldn’t reconcile that nice man who adored her with the fuming, mean man who she had seen, on film, yelling at and slapping around her father.

In real life, the little girl’s ambivalence toward her Uncle Babe went on for months, breaking Babe’s heart, until somebody in one of the two families twigged to what was upsetting her.

So that short where Stan acts out of character and wallops the hell out of Ollie?

That was them, tailoring the story as a gift to Stan’s daughter.

And from then on, everything was okay.


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

(Written in response to a guy who says he never goes to movies anymore, because all the audiences are so disruptive).

One way to avoid assholes: see smarter movies.

I am 100% serious about this.

See a movie about a muscle-bound thug on a mission of vengeance, slitting the throats of Mafiosi, and you will encounter assholes.

See a movie about a bunch of guys who suffer a drunken blackout in a strange city and have a series of adventures related to bodily fluids, and you will encounter assholes.

See a movie about a guy with a sword cutting up CGI monsters, and you will encounter assholes.

See a movie with more than five explosions in it, and you will encounter assholes.

See a movie about a superhero, and you will encounter assholes.

Please note: good movies of all these kinds can be made…but even in those cases, that which makes them good movies for the rest of us is also what makes them attractive movies to assholes.

Assholes of the particular type we’re talking about do not go to sensitive dramas, or period films, or foreign films; assholes of a different kind can certainly be found there, but the kind I’m talking about? If they somehow do wonder into a movie of substance that requires intelligence and nuance, they usually wander out.

There honestly weren’t many people cat-calling, texting, fighting, throwing popcorn, and in general acting like total subhumans, at THE KING’S SPEECH, WINTER’S BONE, FAIR GAME, MICHAEL CLAYTON, THE LIVES OF OTHERS, PAN’S LABYRINTH, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, and TRUE GRIT. The actual sense that the movies in question might require some humanity in the audience served as sufficient filter to keep out those who do not live with humanity in their actual lives.
 
I do not fear the prospect of encountering loud and disruptive audiences at Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE. Just a hunch…!


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

I have encountered a strange movie, 1989’s Meet the Hollowheads, which is actually pretty goddamned bad but which for sheer weirdness of conception everybody seeing these words needs to investigate and watch, if only the first twenty minutes or so. I couldn’t turn the fuckin’ thing off, despite its awfulness; it’s one of those movies where the fascination is that got made at all.

Meet the Hollowheads  is a strange parody of a 1950s sitcom, except that the family lives in a nightmare environment at the center of the Earth, and the family’s idea of comforting normalcy is downright grotesque to our eyes. For instance, the after-school snack Mom makes for her son and his best friend consists of a squirming kind of mutant cockroach that she cuts into fourths, wraps in a kind of bready substance that unspools from a toilet paper roll, and smears with a plegmy white paste. The kids are delighted to get it. The dinner she prepares is a kind of horrifically grasping tentacle that emerges from a tube on the wall and tries to grab her before she amputates it and cuts it into slices.

There’s more: telephones are corrugated tubing. The family “dog” is a hideous canine parody so infested with ticks that the kids delight in pulling them off and using them as slingshot ammunition. All food staples are pumped into the house through pipes from an industrial facility ruled by Throw Momma From The Train’s Anne Ramsey. Another family pet, unremarked-upon by anybody, is an eyeball that pops out of what looks like a mound of intestines and reacts to react to every momentary development. On an errand “outside,” we learn that the family dwells in absolute darkness and that much is made of the dangers of “falling over the edge.” Nor is the movie content to show us a few manifestations of the strangeness and then move on; no, a new incredibly bizarre wrinkle must occur every thirty seconds or so.

The plot has something to do with family Dad John Glover bringing his typically stern Mr. Slate-like boss home for dinner, and Mom struggling to get everything ready in time, while daughter Juliette Lewis prepares for a big date. The boss is a leering sexual predator in a purple suit, whose every movement is accompanied by a lion’s roar. In the end, they strap him in a chair in the basement, for the rest of his life, and feed him with green glop from a hypodermic.

I repeat, it ain’t a good movie. A sequence where the Lewis character primps for her date, trying on weirder and weirder outfits while the editing goes into montage mode, is particularly awful. But it is not a dull bad movie, either. Anything that makes my jaw drop that much in the first forty minutes (before the lateness of the hour intruded and I had to go to bed), just because I could not believe the small industrial enterprise that went into making it, cannot POSSIBLY be all bad.

Recommended? Well, not quite. But it is the kind of movie you need to watch with your strangest and wittiest friends.


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

When Judi and I were preparing for our own wedding, we were assured by everybody, EVERYBODY, that we *needed* to see MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING. It was not just painted as a must-see, it was painted as the most …universal, most heartwarming, most resonant movie about a wedding ever. (To people who, I guess, had not seen the original FATHER OF THE BRIDE.)

I was told this by my parents. I was told this by my sister. I was told this by my friends. I was told this by my co-workers. Judi heard it from her own family. She heard it from her co-workers.

We missed the film in the theatres, thus increasing the pressure, and then with one thing or another took months to rent a copy on DVD. And we finally did.

Half an hour into the movie, we looked at each other and asked, mutually, “Have you laughed yet?”

The two of us found the entire enterprise so empty, so banal, that we were deeply, deeply embarrassed for it. It wasn’t that it failed to resonate with our current experiences; it was that it failed to resonate with them at any level deeper than the most superficial observations by the most tiresome distant aunt. There was not a single element in the love story that failed to function at any level other than wish fulfillment and not a single element regarding the wedding that failed to transcend the banal. At the time, I was downright depressed that audiences had embraced it with such excessive enthusiasm; together with LEGALLY BLONDE, another movie that everybody told us we *had* to see, and that struck us both as deeply empty, it kind of proved to me that the majority of people prefer movies that wash over them like background music, without challenging them or altering them at all.

(And my future wife’s negative reaction to both films served as further proof that we were right for one another.)

In the end, it contributed to our lives only in that our reception’s lightly science-fictional theme got the day dubbed Our Big Fat Geek Wedding.

So yeah, that’s my advance reaction to this summer’s Tom Hanks/Julia Roberts movie, LARRY CROWNE. Hanks as writer is an unknown quantity to me, but I am not rushing out to see anything written by Nia Vardalos.