Posts Tagged ‘Horror’


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

Note: this review originally appeared at SciFiweekly (now Blastr).

                   The Cult DVD
                   Directed by Joe Knee
                   Screenplay by Benjamin Oren
                   From a Story by Benjamin Oren, Joe Knee, and Stephen Fromkin
                   Starring Taryn Manning,  Rachel Miner,  Fiona Horne, Robert Berson, Joel Michaely
                   85 minutes
                    Maverick Entertainment 
GRADE: C-

A long time ago, in ancient China, beautiful Kwan Lin  (Susie Park) allowed herself to be impregnated by a man beneath her station. Her enraged father reacted by cutting out her eyes and stabbing her in the belly. This violent death somehow led to eternal life as a powerful disembodied spirit, in close association with a glowing green amulet of the sort that future generations will not want to place around their own necks. Let’s just say it doesn’t go well with red.

Many years later, Owen Quinlin (Berson) uncovered the amulet and traveled to California, the one place where he would have no trouble finding plenty of beautiful young women who could be talked into joining him, at a temple sanctified to Kwan Lin, for a mystical ceremony that involved stabbing themselves in the eyes and stomach to grant him control of all the tragic spirit’s power.  Why not, you imagine them thinking. Anything that mystical must make sense. Alas for him, the last of the young ladies decided, “Naaaaaah,” at the very last minute, shouting that his motives weren’t pure. Like, Duh. Like she couldn’t have come to her senses in time to share this epiphany with her friends. Talk about coming late to the party. Too bad the only alternative, at that point, was for her and Quinlin to carve each other new orifices with the sacrificial knives. By the time the bloodletting was done, that was one messy temple.

So much for backstory. Cut to the present day, where Professor Esterbrook (Horne) lectures the students of Generic Horror Movie University on Comparative Religion.. Her favorite student is Mindy (Miner), who has been having inexplicable flashbacks of that very same massacre. Uh oh.

Mindy talks classmates including Cassandra (Manning), Alex (Michaely), and Bailey (the wonderfully-named Glenn Dunk), into choosing the massacre for their grouo project, thus happily dragging the entire circle of friends into the Don’t-Go-There-If-You-Want-To-Live curriculum. She’s so very determined to research the source of her troubling dreams that she continues to do so even after  another member of her study group chooses that very night to kill herself by — you guessed it — stabbing herself in the eyes and stomach. You can already tell that this is about to become the hottest fad at this particular University, right behind beer blasts.

In the wake of this tragedy, Esterbrook consoles Mindy and offers to give her entire group a complete pass on the project. Without consulting her classmates, or even informing them, Mindy rejects the Professor’s offer. That’s just great, Mindy. You just threw away an easy A for everybody. You don’t think that would have been appreciated, with Finals coming up? Honestly. You almost deserve to be stalked by the evil spirit of Owen Quinlin.

Mindy now receives a videotape containing actual footage of the temple massacre. Her friends all watch it, are properly horrified, and wonder what they should do. Mindy says that they should go to the Kwan Lin Temple and investigate further. Nobody says, “Excuse me. We just received material evidence in a notorious mass murder-slash-suicide of two decades ago.  A mass murder-slash-suicide that, need we remind ourselves, prefigured what just happened to our friend. Anybody who would have possession of this footage, and send it to us, now, is a serious wrongo. The most sensible course here would be to notify the police. The FBI. Anybody.” No. Everybody goes along with Mindy’s plan. They must really need that high grade point average.

Alex, who regularly dons a bear costume as his school’s athletic mascot, quickly establishes himself as this story’s Designated Asshole. He even mocks the religion at its temple, characterizing it as “worshipping the statue of a dead Asian Ho.” Nice guy. You just know it won’t be long before we get to see him screaming like a girl. Still, the movie earns an entire letter grade just for his rant, directed at Bailey, “You fake phony hipster nerd boy! Why don’t you go drink  a soy latte and then you can pip a little Emo into your Ipod and text-message your girlfriend all day long! Oooooh, X O X O X O!”

We could use more moments like that, but ’tis not to be. Only a few scenes later, Alex takes a nap and enters a vivid dream sequence of cavorting in his bear outfit. (Yes. That actually happens.) The spirit of Kwan Lin intercedes, warning him not to let the amulet fall into Quinlin’s hands. Alex wakes up, falls under Quinlin’s control, and promptly stabs himself in the eyes. Ah well. What a waste of a perfectly good portent.

The blurb on the DVD box promises “Real Star Power!” and “Hollywood’s Fastest Rising Young Stars!”, both bombastic ways of saying that Taryn Manning and Rachel Miner, among others, have played supporting roles in big movies that you’ve actually heard of. Michaely seems particularly busy. He’s been in almost 30 productions since 2000, though one of them bills his character as, no kidding, “Fag.” About all any of that has to do with the quality of this thing is that none of them do it any further damage, and occasionally manage to elevate it in fleeting doses. Still, the movie turns so incoherent and dull as it approaches the climax that viewers may find themselves seriously considering Quinlin’s carve-out-their-own-eyes option.


 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Fright Night (1985). Directed by Tom Holland. Screenplay by Tom Holland.  Starring William Ragsdale, Christopher Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall. 106 minutes. ** 1/2

Fright Night (2011). Directed by Craig Gillespie. Screenplay by Marti Noxon, from the prior screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring Alton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette. 106 minutes (one of the rare sequels the same length as the original, to the minute).  * 1/2

Related Films Not Covered Here: Fright Night Part Two (1988)

PeterVincent

You are a rather unremarkable and not very interesting suburban teen with a loving girlfriend, an outcast friend and a single Mom. Your life is unexamined, though it’s safe to say that there’s not really all that much worth examining. You’re not exactly Holden Caulfield. But then one day the vacant house next door sells to a new owner: a fellow who, it turns out, is a vampire intent on making your neighborhood his new feeding grounds. You can’t get anybody to believe you. Your only hope is a local celebrity named Peter Vincent, who incorporates vampire mythology as part of his act and who might be induced to see you as something more than a fanboy who needs to get out more.

This is the premise of two teen horror comedies made 26 years apart, and the first thing we need to say here is that we’re not about to overstate the quality of either one of them. The first one featured a fine late-career performance by Roddy McDowall as the vampire hunter and a smoldering performance by Chris Sarandon as the vampire, but is otherwise not tremendously overflowing with wit, interesting variations on vampire tropes or genuine scares. It’s just a dopey, time-killing, amusing and frequently very fun but ultimately wholly forgettable piece of multiplex fodder. It would only be remade in a remake-mad cinematic climate where vague title recognition is considered more important than, you know, a fresh story. Similarly, the second plays many of the same notes – albeit to lesser effect – and is not wholly devoid of entertainment value, but otherwise doesn’t provide much for audiences who want to remember their movies longer than it takes to drive home afterward.

Both movies have a regrettable void at their center: the character of Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale in the original, Anton Yelchin in the remake), a kid who is just a generically good-looking teen played by somebody not in his teens, whose character is never at any point any deeper than what’s happening to him at any given moment. In the first film, his major issue is trying to get his girlfriend to put out for him; in the second, it’s a desire for popularity so overwhelming that he’s re-invented himself to be one of the cool kids and completely forsaken his nerdy old friend, “Evil” Ed (Christopher Mintz=Plasse). It’s a minor point, even so, sped past for the benefit of an audience that would rather get to the so-called “good stuff;” it certainly doesn’t make him at all interesting. He doesn’t grow in any particular way, he doesn’t discover himself in any particular way, and though he must act as a hero by the time the action is over, there’s no real sense of him rising to the occasion, as the most satisfying heroes must.

Both Charleys are also intensely stupid, in their way. Here’s an intelligence test: if you find out that your next-door neighbor is a vampire, who has murdered at least one local hooker, do you blurt out “he’s a vampire!” to anybody who can help you, thus making them see you as a delusional crank? Or do you employ more subtlety, showing instead of telling? In the first film, Charley first becomes suspicious of his neighbor when the beautiful young woman who arrives in a cab to visit his next-door neighbor is recognizably the murdered hooker the TV newscast references the next morning. Okay, so this is not the kind of thing you want taking place next door, and Charley does (after waffling about it) call the police. However, blurting out in the presence of a skeptical detective that he search the basement for the vampire’s coffin is clearly not nearly as promising a tactic as what Charley doesn’t do, namely advise the detective that the hooker arrived in a cab and suggest that the cab driver might be able to corroborate her arrival at this particular address on this particular day, mere hours before her body was found. Also, both Charleys, seeking help from their respective versions of Peter Vincent, are adorably certain that the two show-biz figures actually do believe in vampires and actually have experience in fighting them. These are boys who have reached their late teens and still haven’t absorbed the elemental lesson that the people they see on television, playing parts, may not be exactly like the people they play. Their naivete might have made more sense had the two Charleys been about five or six years younger, media-saturated kids who actually believed the shit they watched, but the Charleys we get seem too too old to be  so inept at distinguishing fact from fiction, artifice from reality, in the case of Peter Vincent,  that they seem almost mentally ill.

The 26 year interval between the two films does present us with some interesting contrasts. For instance, watching the old film after an exposure to the new, one realizes that we’ve completely lost what used to be a vital device in cinematic shorthand, to wit: am abandoned  television set showing nothing but static in the wee hours of the morning, thus establishing that nobody was paying attention when the station ended its broadcasting day. Yes, once upon a time, you could really turn on TV at 3 AM and find nothing but snow, rendering literal the standard complaint that nothing was on. This is no longer the state of affairs in a world of 500 channels of 24/7 programming, so this oft-used cinematic shorthand has gone the way of the dodo.

More to the point, the character type McDowall played in the 1985 film no longer existed by 2011. In 1985 Peter Vincent was an old-time horror movie actor, of the Peter Cushing / Vincent Price / Christopher Lee type, who has fallen on hard times and is now employed as a local-TV “horror host” – a personality of the sort who was once used to introduce a station’s horror movies, with some kind of witty in-character banter. There used to be a dozen of these guys (and some girls), up and down the dial – when there were dials – and some of them had followings so loyal that fans tuned in to see the shtick more than the show it introduced. No less a personage than Alfred Hitchcock did a version of the horror host, a cartoonishly macabre version of himself, for every episode of his anthology program, though most of the people we’re talking about were introducing mostly-bad old movies and not original productions like Hitchcock’s. In 1985, Peter Vincent reduced to horror host was an effective, if only barely-explored, exercise in presenting us with the plight of a once-famous man now reduced to cannibalizing what was left of his notoriety. He was such an instantly sympathetic secondary protagonist that many of this viewer’s complaints about the movie would be negated if viewpoint character Charley were removed or given less time, and Vincent rendered the main figure.

But a quarter of a century later, there were no horror hosts, really; some of the older members of the remake’s target audience might have remembered Elvira, but that was about it. So Vincent’s character had to be re-invented completely, and here became a big-time Las Vegas magician, who uses vampire lore as part of his shtick. This was a clever bit of story surgery, and was probably necessary given that the earlier model of the character no longer worked, but…really. In terms of sheer likeability, the difference between a broken-down old actor holding on to the memorabilia of past accomplishments, who has been fired from his TV-host job and is about to be evicted from his home, and a wealthy Vegas entertainer living in a luxurious penthouse along with a super-model girlfriend he treats like crap, is night and day. One is a poor fellow who becomes what he once pretended to be;  the other is a rich asshole who doesn’t even have enough heart to grieve for thirty seconds when the girlfriend he had just been screaming at is gorily murdered.

One would almost forgive that last touch if the second Peter Vincent was supposed to be, not just a rich prick, but an outright sociopath. But no. It’s just unforgivably bad story construction. The movie simply fails to notice that Peter Vincent should feel more over the death of a woman he lived with, even if he didn’t like her much. (Perhaps especially if he hadn’t liked her much.)

The screenplay was written by Marti Noxon, who as a major contributor to TV’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer should have done better; we can only guess if what was on-screen reflects her work or if it was mangled afterward. But it’s not the screenplay’s only violation of basic human nature. What follows is a pet peeve of mine. Any thriller where a character’s loved one – or even somebody they just sorta kinda like — dies in horrific circumstances, where those circumstances are later overcome at great personal risk, and where the person who should now finally have time to mourn his loss makes light-hearted jokes with his fellow survivors, just to provide an undiscerning audience with the fake comfort of a supposedly happy ending, is absolute bullshit. Give the ending of the remake more than five seconds of thought and it’s not just bad; it’s downright revolting. (For an example of a movie that gets it right, see the somber mood of the survivors even as they wait to be rescued at the end of the original The Poseidon Adventure.  Ernest Borgnine looks back at the disaster that claimed his wife, and weeps.)

Another bad innovation of the 2011 version: the revelation that its Peter Vincent actually has a vampire-related tragedy in his past (a bloodsucker killed his parents), and has thus spent his life collecting artifacts that include the very same artifacts vital to killing this movie’s bloodsucking fiend.

The major problem with this is that it’s profoundly shitty storytelling.

Why is it profoundly shitty storytelling?

Let us summarize.

What’s more satisfying?

1) A naïve kid who, upon discovering that his new next-door neighbor is a vampire, goes to a vampire-shtick celebrity who happens to live within commuting distance, but who doesn’t have the answers he needs, and who therefore has to overcome his very real limitations to become the hero anyway.

OR,

2) That very same naïve kid making the same unsettling discovery and going to another vampire-shtick celebrity who also happens to live within commuting distance… and who  by sheer convenient coincidence actually does own the artifacts necessary for killing this particular vampire, because he secretly knows vampires exist and is in fact motivated by the childhood loss of his parents and who ultimately finds out that his parents were killed by that very same vampire? Man! That is known as wrapping too much up in a bow. It is known as being fortunate that you have the screenwriter on your side!

David Tennant, who played the 2011 Peter Vincent, has shown in another venue I won’t insult you by naming that he excels at playing flamboyant characters who fight monsters. But this film gives him precious little to do except scream insults at his girlfriend before joining Charley’s fight. He certainly gets nothing to do as satisfying as the seesaw of mingled horror and pity that McDowall so splendidly emotes while watching one recently-turned vampire writhe in its lengthy death throes.  (It’s one of the best performances of McDowall’s late career, though for absolute best you need to check out  a suspenseful little film called Dead Of Winter.)

For some reason, I wrote off Christopher Sarandon as male-model bland in 1985, but seeing the movie for the first time in a quarter-century  appreciate the nuances in his performance now; I especially like a lengthy nightclub scene, detailing the seduction of Charley’s girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), which really is nicely put together. And he shows a significant sense of humor, throughout. I find it oddly interesting that, when first revealed as a vampire, he gives Charley  a chance to just mind his own business before declaring war; I can only wonder why (maybe as a courtesy to a neighbor?), but it is an interesting bit of character nuance. (And I wonder where the story would have gone if Charley had said yes; would we have had scenes of him earning extra money by mowing the vampire’s lawn, while nodding at the latest prostitute to be dropped off by cab?)  Sarandon is certainly a highlight of the first film, almost as important as McDowall is. Colin Farrell’s vampire is by contrast just a smirking asshole, even if he does get at least one somewhat-suspenseful early scene, in which Charley tries to escape the house with a girl who’s stayed to be dinner. The two movies have different bumpy routes to the finale, and each boast effective set-pieces not duplicated by the other – the pathetic apparent death of the vampirized Evil Ed in 1985, a fine attempt to get away from the vampire by car in 2011, a superior nightclub scene in 1985, the sad fate of a victim Charley manages to free in 2011– but, to this viewer, neither really congeal as movies worth falling in permanent love with. It’s simply not worth a scene-by-scene comparison. The stories are not strong enough, not memorable enough, to render the exercise worth the effort.

One thing’s for sure. Remakes can be most confidently dismissed as gratuitous when the first movie isn’t all that great and the remake isn’t either – indeed, when the remake has so few notes of its own to play that it makes a point of ticking off the bad guy’s fondness for apples. Talk about sad.

I do, however, love the name of the 2011 leading lady, Imogen Poots.

*

David Tennant

And now, the wife creeps in through an unguarded door, carrying a stake and a crossbow…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Fright Night (1985). Directed by Tom Holland. Screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring William Ragsdale, Christopher Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall. 106 minutes. ** 1/2

Fright Night (2011). Directed by Craig Gillespie. Screenplay by Marti Noxon, from the prior screenplay by Tom Holland. Starring Alton Yelchin, Colin Farrel, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette. 106 minutes (one of the rare sequels the same length as the original, to the minute). *1/2

Related Films Not Covered Here: Fright Night Part Two (1988)

 

I was so darn excited to get into these films.

I remembered the first film with great fondness.  Not for its greatness in and of itself mind you, but for the sheer fun I had watching it all those years ago.  I remember seeing Chris Sarandon at a Horror convention and thinking not about his truly fun Humperdinck, but only his sexy vampire.  This was how I felt a modern vampire story should play out, and I held that memory as a cherished possession all this time.

Then that memory was soiled by the horrid, poorly understood remake made by folks who DEFINITELY should know better!

Yes, I know, vampires are evil, nasty ratlike creatures, who go for the easy pickings and low hanging fruit, but come on guys!  Where the Sarandon vamp is suave and smooth, the Colin Farrel  one is sleaze personified. Sure they are both great looking, but Farrel doesn’t even bother with seduction, just calling hookers and having his meals delivered.  His threats are clear and unveiled, no trying to just scare the kid off, just let him know that he and his are on the list.  Sarandon’s vampire tries everything to avoid killing the kid, well until the virgin girlfriend comes into his sights.  Even then he still seems to prefer seduction to killing in the overall scheme of things.

And, maybe today’s audiences don’t have the wherewithal to sit through a bit of storytelling, since the new film eschews most of the creepy atmosphere and build up to get right to the attacks and effects. 

Now, let’s compare our Peter Vincents.

Roddy McDowall, aging child/adult star, playing aging former horror movie dude, now relegated to late night horror host.  Got it!  When I was a kid, these hosts were pretty common, not so much now.  I asked a twenty something that I work with about Elvira and she only “kinda thought” she had heard of the character, couldn’t describe her or place her in any way.  I get the need for an update, but unfortunately, as much as I ADORE David Tennant (yes, I am a Whovian), the character given to him is too damn successful to care about the story these kids bring to him.  Come on again writers!  The vampire is the same one that killed his family and so he gets to play vengeance chicken.  Nuuh  Uhh!  No how!  No way!  Too stupid even for the youngest teens.  Did that idea come from the 7-11 school of screenwriting, because my teachers would have blown cannon holes through it all.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the new film has no redeeming values.  David Tennant is still great (blinders are removed from my eyes here, I loved his Hamlet too!), despite the limitations of the character.  Colin Farrel seems to enjoy phoning in his vampire thug.  I always enjoy watching Toni Collette play American.  And the kids honestly try real hard to get across the fears.  But again, the original, for all the flawed deliveries and dated material (G-d I hate the look of early eighties hair/clothing), still produces more punch per minute, than the 2011 film can muster in any thirty.


Feed me, Seymour. Feed Me All Night Long.

The Entire Movie

      

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Little Shop Of Horrors (1960). Directed by Roger Corman. Written by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, and Jack Nicholson. 70 minutes. **

Little Shop Of Horrors (1986). Directed by Frank Oz. Written by Howard Ashman, based on the musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, itself based on the original screenplay by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, Bill Murray. 94 minutes. ***

*

Your name is Seymour Krelboyne. You are a born nudnik working a dead-end job in the worst part of town, in an florist’s shop about to go under from lack of customers. But you believe you have the solution: a strange, sickly potted plant with an egg-shaped gourd that somewhat resembles a head. You’ve named it Audrey II, in tribute to your co-worker, a sweet airhead with a knack for mangling the English language. Surely, you tell your abusive boss Gravis Mushnick, putting this discovery on display must be a great way to attract new customers. He is dubious, to say the least. But within minutes of your big unveiling, customers start swarming in, and the future employment seems assured. The only problem is that the plant is carnivorous, malevolent, and so hungry that your gardening hobby soon acquires its own body count.

The original Little Shop Of Horrors, imbedded in its entirety above, was made on a lark, by folks who never expected it to be anything, and who were in fact daring themselves just on general principle to come up with a movie that could be shot on sets built for another movie, on a two-day filming schedule. (It actually took three weeks, if you count the two it took to write the screenplay, the three days the cast spent on rehearsal, and the final two-day frenzied production.)   It was such a surprise success, and object of cult adoration for over the years that followed, that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken used it as the basis for a hit off-Broadway musical, that inevitably brought the story back to Hollywood. 

The 1986 version, made at a budget of approximately 750 times the budget of the original — literally, on such a scale that the moviemakers could have made the original all over again on about the same amount the money the new movie spent on any particular shooting day, before breaking for lunch — is the one that most casual moviemakers know now. Close examination reveals that the new version is, songs and all,  if anything, a smaller-scaled story. But is it a more focused one?

Little Shop of Horrors (1960): Dedicated Weirdness

As often occurs with remakes, the partisans of this version regard the remake with open contempt, treating it as a bastardization of the original work of genius. They call the 1986 version overblown, obvious, and spendthrift of the original’s charms.

One can only wonder if they’ve seen the original lately.

It’s not a bad film (though the wife is – spoiler warning – about to take violent exception to that assertion). In fact, considering the conditions under which is made, it is a surprisingly good film, with clever dialogue, and some remarkably witty character bits. It certainly serves up a lot more incidental weirdness than the 1986 version, providing us in addition to the sadistic dentist and masochistic patient a number of eccentrics that don’t make it to the 1986 film at all. They include Siddie Shiva (Leola Wendorff), a perennial customer who arrives every single day to announce the death of yet another of her poor relatives; Seymour’s crazy hypochondriac mother Winifred (Myrtle Vail), whose mania includes a revolting form of down-home cooking that utilizes patent medicines as food staples; and Burson Fouch (invaluable b-movie veteran Dick Miller), an awfully nice guy who buys up flowers so he can snack on them in the store. There are also a pair of deadpan Homicide detectives, who between them offer an outrageous parody of Jack Webb’s Dragnet that could have been, and in fact eventually was under other hands, a workable premise of a full-length movie all by itself.

”How’s the wife, Frank?”

“Not bad, Joe.”

“Glad to hear it. The kids?”

“Lost one yesterday.”

Lost one, huh? How’d that happen?”

“Playing with matches.”

Well, those’re the breaks.”

“I guess so.”

This is funny stuff now. Audiences in 1960, with Jack Webb’s intonations still in recent memory, would have found it even funnier.

The constant malaprops uttered by both Audrey and Mushnick – neither of whom seem to have ever met a sentence they didn’t have serious trouble crossing intact — are another fine element. And so’s the brief visit from the masochistic dental patient (played by a young pre-stardom Jack Nicholson, who is of course given star billing on every public-domain VHS and DVD pressing of the film). Nicholson had yet to learn most of what he eventually knew about acting, and he was still a hoot and a half as a pervert experiencing heights of sexual arousal while reading a medical journal:   “The patient came to me with a large hole in his abdomen, caused by a fire poker used on him by his wife. He almost bled to death and gangrene had set in. I didn’t give him much of a chance. There were other complications. The man had cancer, tuberculosis, leprosy, and a touch of the grippe. I decided to operate.” Hee hee!

So this is all good. What’s not? Well, to be frank, Jonathan Haze as Seymour, attempting to channel Jerry Lewis and failing miserably. (It’s not funny as intended, in either film, when Seymour trips while running into the store and smashes a bunch of flowerpots while Mushnick rages at his incompetence, but the difference between the first film and the second is that when Rick Moranis gets up, he goes back to being funny, and Haze seems to leave his comic timing in the debris.) The encounter with an insistent prostitute is just plain embarrassing. The plant itself is not nearly as interesting, in that it’s not the voluble chatterbox of the remake but instead a vegetable of few words beyond the insistent, “Feed me!” The plot doesn’t manage to achieve any real comic velocity but instead comes down to a series of strange things happening, until a dull final chase scene that consists of Mushnick and the two cops chasing Seymour around a tire yard. And, finally, there’s ending: a tragic death for Seymour that consists of him deliberately climbing into the plant’s mouth and ends as a bud with his face cries, “I didn’t mean it!”  Today, it gives the impression of being what it likely: a hasty wrap-up by moviemakers who never thought their two-day production would form the basis of an ongoing franchise, and who just did whatever would get them to the title card THE END as soon as possible.

The first film is in short the product of a generous posterity. Its best moments are remembered with fondness, and its worst forgotten or forgiven.

 

Little Shop of Horrors (1986): A Stage-Bound Epic

According to producer David Geffen, the first director approached for this remake was Martin Scorcese. Think on that a bit. What he might have made of it!

It’s actually fortunate that he didn’t, as the team put together by Frank Oz, in adapting the stage hit, made about as good as movie as anyone could have made from the material.

Part of it involves what novelists call “killing your darlings,” the fine art of jettisoning those favorite bits of business that we might recall with affection but which really don’t do all that much in terms of servicing the story. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the writers of the musical, had every reason to do this, because any Off-Broadway production lives and dies by narrative economy and therefore can’t survive much in the way of incidental characters who add nothing but oddness. So farewell, alas, to Burson Fouch; we’ll miss you, but you distracted from the stuff we needed to heed. Farewell, Siddie Shiva; we enjoyed your perpetual state of mourning, but it was really only one-joke and you can serve the same purpose as an unseen presence on the other side of a phone.

Most importantly, farewell, Winifred Krelboyne: getting rid of you, and making Seymour an orphan who has lived all his life as Mushnick’s virtual slave, serves several purposes. First, it means we lose that interval when Seymour has to travel across town to get the plant, and return with it; Second, it makes him even more put-upon and therefore sympathetic than he was before; third, it increases the stakes, from Seymour losing a job that wasn’t any good anyway to losing the only home he’s ever had, and then to finding a happiness he’s never known

All of this leaves more room for the character of the sadistic dentist, who is here positioned closer to the concerns of the plot. In the original, he’s just another odd element, incidental to Seymour’s life until Seymour needs a tooth looked at. In the musical, and subsequently in this film, he’s the human Audrey’s ridiculously abusive boyfriend, a guy who really does look to the far from murderous Seymour like one of those people who (as both Seymour and the plant declare in song) might as well become plant food.

This change moves the love story closer to center stage,  increasing our empathy for everybody involved (and making way for one of the funniest Ashman / Menken songs, “Be A Dentist”). Even the appearance of Bill Murray in the masochistic-patient part once played by Jack Nicholson is rendered material; sure, it pops in out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly, but in context it serves as the unsatisfying office visit that stokes the dentist’s rage and prompts him to seize on Seymour as a patient who will react properly to the agony he inflicts.

The increased attention to the Seymour / Audrey I dynamic gave the musical something the original didn’t have: narrative momentum. The original  doesn’t so much build in tension as stagger its way through a series of incidents. The musical makes it a comic race between Seymour getting everything he’s ever wanted, and damning himself beyond redemption. (The fact that in the stage musical and in the original cut of this film, he loses the race, as both he and his girlfriend are eaten, and leave the carnivorous plant to further threaten the world, is immaterial; a disastrous test of that apocalyptic ending led to the happier resolution it enjoys now; and it would be true in either case that it’s the tension being played with.)
  
Your friendly analysts have seen the stage musical – not the original, but a subsequent revival – and must report that the movie accomplishes things it does not. It is perfectly acceptable, on stage, for a soloist to just stand in one place, and belt out the entirety of a song – that is, assuming that it’s a good song, that it advances the story and illuminates character, and that the performer can sing it. A movie musical where most of the story is conveyed via the songs must do a little bit more, and we happily report that the imaginative staging of the songs in the film give them all significant visual power. “Skid Row,” for instance, is here an epic production number detailing exactly why Seymour’s life sucks and how much he’s aware of it; it places him in a milieu where everybody feels the same way, and motivates him about a hundred times better than anything seen in the original film.

“Be A Dentist” not only tells us that Orin Scrivello is a dirtbag who deserves to die, as the play does, but here shows us (with one eye-popping within-the-mouth shot).Giving the plant the power of song as well as the power of speech (both Levi Stubbs) underlines just how Mephistophelean the deal offered by that mulch-fed maniac is, and why Seymour responds to it as he does. Hell, despite the silliness of the proceedings, this viewer always mists up, badly, during the declaration-of-love song, “Suddenly Seymour.” He honestly cannot help it.

(It helps, of course, that they’re for the most part great songs, and that the greek-chorus narrators have a presence that restores much of the strangeness the removal of so many incidental characters has taken out.)

The set is a marvel: one of the largest New York City sets ever built, taking up much of London’s Pinewood studios, it is clearly not a real place but a fine stylized approximation of one. And the plant is terrific. Just the statistics are impressive: for the various incarnations of Audrey II, fifty thousand fake leaves, eleven miles of cable, design assistance from the Atomic Energy Commission, and fifty puppeteers operating it during the finale. None of this would be even remotely enough if it didn’t actually come off as a living thing, but Audrey II does; he’s malicious, cajoling, self-satisfied, evil AND charming, all at once. If you want to be absolutely terrified, reflect that today, he would almost certainly be rendered by CGI…and imagine just how lame that would inevitably be. 

Some enthusiasts believe it a betrayal of the source material (both prior film and stage show), that Seymour and the human Audrey go on to live their happily-ever-afters, and I’m afraid that’s an argument that can’t be won. It degenerates into, “Yes, It is! No, it’s not!” I can only suggest that if the preview audiences were outraged at the original ending where Seymour and Audrey died, it must be because that by then the couple at the center of the proceedings had such genuine chemistry…and that, by itself, speaks volumes.

Neither Rick Moranis nor Ellen Greene went on to the lasting screen stardom they deserved – in Moranis’s case by choice, as he eventually took some personal time off from acting and realized over time that he didn’t miss it at all; and in Greene’s case because the couple of headlining roles she received on screen afterward didn’t achieve anywhere near the same impact. (Unlike Moranis, she’s still performing, and was prominent as an eccentric aunt in the cult TV series Pushing Daisies.) It remains the best film either one has ever been involved with.
 
There have been some vague noises about yet another remake, including from one guy who says he wants to go back to the source material and make a straight horror movie. We are not eager to see the result.

The Leaf-Cutting

1960 version, a remarkable achievement on a shoe-string, but one with dead spots that weaken its flashes of genius. 1986 version, a terrific movie musical, that manages human feeling despite the campiness of its story.

*

And now, the wife plants her own seeds.

Second Commentary by Judi B Castro

Little Shop Of Horrors (1960). Directed by Roger Corman. Written by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, and Jack Nicholson. 70 minutes. *

Little Shop Of Horrors (1986). Directed by Frank Oz. Written by Howard Ashman, based on the musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, itself based on the original screenplay by Charles B. Griffith. Starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, Bill Murray. 94 minutes. ***

I was eager to see the 1960 Little Shop of Horrors.  I had heard how this cult classic was completed in a few days, on borrowed sets and less than a full shoestring of a budget.  It was a horror/sci-fi/love story supposedly filled with just the right amount of “black humor” to at least get a chuckle or two.  Supposedly.

Then I watched it.  While I can admire the accomplishment I can not tolerate the horrible anti-semitism throughout.  If was just the caricatured characters, I could shrug it off, but no!  This hatred permeates every moment of film.  The language, the mannerisms the set decorations!  They took one really bad Jewish joke and stretched it to a full hour of pain. Do only Jews populate this particular part of skid row?  I did find myself horrified, but not by the sf/horror alien plant taking over the world, that could have been fun!

Move ahead to 1986.  I’m already a fan of this musical and I can’t wait to see what the film brings out.

This film is fun.  The music is catchy, the characters are mostly likeable, and  Audrey II is amazing!   This film never slows down.  It’s a cannon ball shot towards a heavy magnet.  Even by the CG driven films that can wow me today, these effects still play well.  Audrey II’s movement and lip synch are near perfection, but I expect that from a crew run by Frank Oz(whose puppet Yoda still far excels the CG one)!

Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene are the dufus couple you can cheer for.   The chemistry seems natural and even the singing fits the character moments.  This movie had me on the lookout for both these actors for quite some time after.

Steve Martin’s leather clad, sleaze ball, sadistic dentist is so much fun especially when played off of Bill Murray’s masochistic patient.  And, while Jack Nicholson in the same basic part was one of the few bright spots of the earlier attempt, Mr. Murray’s turn just tweaks it up a notch.

Gone from this version is the yidenglish signage, the spinster jewess with the constantly dying relatives (mass murderer???) and the over eager flower muncher.  None of these are a loss felt deeply and the changes actually lighten the entire tone.

As to the SF/Horror elements.  Well they are played out here as before.  Not actually central but not secondary either.  At its heart this remake is a love story, plain and simple.  Who really needs more than that?

 

 

 

 


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?


One was fresh. One was re-warmed but still quite tasty. The third was rancid.

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Night Of The Living Dead (1968). Directed by George A. Romero. Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman. 96 minutes. ***

Night Of The Living Dead (1990). Directed by Tom Savini. Screenplay by George A. Romero, based on the 1968 screenplay by George Romero and John Russo. Starring Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles. 92 minutes. ***

Night Of the Living Dead 3-D (2006). Directed by Jeff Broadstreet. Screenplay by Jeff Broadstreet, inspired by the 1968 Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Brianna Brown, Sid Haig. 80 minutes. *

Other Known VersionsNight Of the Living Dead Re-Animated (2009; jam animated version);  too many sequels and films inspired by the original concept to list.

*

Before we begin this one, we’ll note that we had an ulterior motive for placing this series of films so high up on the list of possible remake blog topics: the recent release of my own entry in this now-venerable and still growing subgenre, the gorily illustrated alphabet book Z Is For Zombie, by myself and dynamiting artist Johnny Atomic. That volume would not exist had an innocent nine-year-old with an interest in monster movies not wandered into a Saturday afternoon double-feature half some forgotten piece of crap I can no longer name and half the nightmare that warped him, and apparently, uncounted others, for life. Go ahead. Click the Amazon link above and buy a copy or twelve. We’ll still be here when you’re done.

Done? Now we can move on.

Zombies are everywhere. There are now several different postulated pathologies, including the brainless, slow zombies of the three films under discussion today, the various sequels directed by George Romero, and many of his imitators: slow, mindless, ambulatory meat, who eat flesh.

There are the sentient, somewhat faster zombies introduced in the competing  Return Of The Living Dead series, who crave and chant “Brains” for reasons too depressing to go into right now.

There are the fast-moving zombies of the 2004 Dawn Of the Dead remake, who are not “all messed up” and can run. There’s an entire suite of living “zombies” such as those postulated by 28 Days Later (2002) and, arguably, Zombieland (2009), who are better described as human beings who have come down with a virulent form of rabies.

There are the splatstick zombies of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992),  arguably the best zombie movie ever made, who remain animate even when chopped into little pieces; and there are the video-game zombies of the Resident Evil movie series, of which we shall only say, they suck. Nor are these the only variations. Even if you omit the traditional voodoo zombies which are , which another kettle of fish entirely, zombies come in more varieties than penguins. And then, on top of that, there are the variations postulated by the writers of horror novels, some of which are far removed from Romero’s blueprint. (Check out, among others, Walter Greatshell, Mira Grant, and Brian Keene.)

But the subgenre as we understand it today did all begin in 1968, with a little low-budget movie that didn’t even use the word “zombie” at any point. Its characters had never seen a zombie movie and were slow to understand the nature of the phenomenon they were dealing with. They called their shambling assailants “those things,” and they struggled with the evidence of their eyes and their sense, learning the new paradigm of their world even as the monsters loose in that world closed in around them.

Night Of the Living Dead is the seed of the myth.

And all three of the movies bearing the same title share much of the opening premise. All three open with a pair of bickering siblings, Johnny and Barbara, on a long and unpleasant trip road trip to a cemetery. In all three, Barbara is the good daughter, fulfilling a family obligation to the dead; in all three, Johnny is the obnoxiously contrary brother, vocal about finding the entire exercise hypocritical and ridiculous. In all three, Barbara initially believes in showing respect for the dead; in all three, Johnny argues that the dead won’t appreciate it. (He is correct about that, but obviously has no idea just how true that will soon turn out to be.) In all three, Johnny resorts to mocking his sister’s piety by chanting, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara;” in all three, the first of the ambulatory corpses shows up to prove him right. All three films proceed to quickly write Johnny out of the equation and send Barbara fleeing on foot to a nearby farmhouse, where she will soon find herself among a small group of survivors besieged by a growing crowd of hungry ghouls.

From that seed, though, the three versions head off into remarkably different directions.

The Iconic Classic: Night Of The Living Dead (1968) 

In the first film, Barbara arrives at the farmhouse in a state of shock that renders her functionally catatonic for most of the action to follow. She is childlike, petulant, withdrawn, detached, and unable to answer simple questions when Ben (Duane Jones) arrives, having already survived several encounters with “those things.” His understanding of what’s going on is no more advanced than hers, except that he knows survival depends on keeping the creatures out.

Much has been made of Romero’s genius in casting a black man as the hero, especially since subsequent events place him in opposition with another survivor who happens to be a loathsome white coward. In tumultuous 1968, when that kind of casting was practically unheard-of, Ben’s race and the race of his instant enemy Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) gave the film a contemporary resonance well beyond what one would expect of a silly little story about dead people who wander the countryside gnawing chunks off the living. It contributed to the film’s notoriety and no doubt to its immortality.

As it happens, the casting was no stroke of genius, but a stroke of luck. The screenplay made no reference to Ben’s race. Duane Jones was simply the best of the leading-men types who showed up to audition, and Romero’s genius amounted to being open-minded enough to say, “Why not?” As it is, Jones demanded substantial changes to the character of Ben, before agreeing to play the part. The original Ben was an unsophisticated blue-collar guy, with uneducated speech patterns. The Ben Jones agreed to play is a well-spoken hero wearing a white shirt and tie, who may show up driving a pickup truck but who seems to have picked it up elsewhere when he first encountered the madness abroad on this particular night.

This Ben is clearly a capable and brave man, and the protagonist we root for when the cowardly, selfish, angry me-first type Harry Cooper emerges from the cellar, where he and several other terrified survivors have been hiding. Some have said that the black man being in charge, over a white man who is at best ineffective and at worst a dangerous liability, increased the chills for contemporary viewers, given that it formed a microcosm of a society that actually did seem to be turning upside down. This is a valid interpretation even if, as the facts bear out, the resonance was an accident of casting. We note that the movie is deft enough to avoid underlining it. Harry may think Ben is “crazy,” but he never attacks him on racial grounds or questions the propriety of a black man being in charge – even though everything we know about Harry’s character would make a racist streak wholly unsurprising. Nor does Ben ever bring it up. Ben is only  the hero because he seems to know what he’s doing; Harry is the villain because he’s a loudmouth whose wife hates him, and because his strategy for survival consists of hiding.

There is an unfortunate, unwanted additional resonance in that hateful, white Harry actually turns out to be right; the first floor is a deathtrap, reinforcing the windows is a waste of time, and just about everything brave, black Ben does, to face the hordes of undead like a man, does lead this poor group of allies who trusted him to an early death. It’s a very good thing for posterity that Ben and Cooper never actually have the white/black argument, because if they did, the bloody conclusion could be read as a vindication of Harry’s position. As it is, Ben is so much more easier to admire than Harry that most viewers can see the movie multiple times and still fail to register that Harry’s plan for survival was in fact the correct one.

In any event, the original Night established the rule followed by most good zombie fiction since then (not just in the movies, but in prose as well): that since zombies as they’re usually imagined are inarticulate and unmotivated by anything but hunger, their mere presence cannot be the sole required story engine. It needs to be the motivating force that throws the interpersonal conflict of the living into sharp relief. This is true whether the issue at hand is rampant consumerism (Dawn Of the Dead), delayed adulthood (Shawn of the Dead),  a surprisingly sweet love story (Dead Alive), or, as in the original Night, the forces that alienate human beings from one another and keep them from cooperating for the common good. A zombie story that fails to reflect this, that is merely a catalogue of ways to dismember corpses, will likely be as soulless as the ghouls themselves.

The movie ends, of course, with sole survivor Ben staggering from the basement, only to be shot dead by sheriffs who spot him through an open window and mistake him for one of the walking dead. His color aside, his climactic death was shocking at the time, when most thrillers and horror films ended with a happy restoration of the status quo, and the happy escape of deserving people to a happy ending. (In 1969, when I saw it at age nine, I couldn’t believe that any movie would ever go there; today, of course, most mainstream horror movies go for that kind of closing shock, and the effect is not so much shocking as yawn-inducing.) Factor his color in and we get another accidental resonance, very vivid to those who first saw the film in those days of rural assassins taking up rifles against Medgar Evers, James Meredith, Martin Luther King, and the Civil Rights Workers Cheney, Shwermer, and Goodman.

The film itself still works, decades after zombies became commonplace on screen. The grainy black and white photography, the building tensions among the people in the house, the grinding unfairness of everything that happens, the inexorably worsening news on the radio, and the absolute dearth of any happy-ever-afters, still render it a powerful tour-de-force. There are some impressive non-performances, but Jones remains fine.

Alas for Romero, the distribution company never properly copyrighted it. The movie passed into the public domain almost immediately, and he no longer makes money from it.

Which was the key reason for the first of the two remakes.

The Unfairly Maligned First Remake: Night Of the Living Dead (1990)

By 1990, the very idea of remaking Night Of the Living Dead seemed so sacrilegious, to so many, that many critics who’d embraced the original (some retroactively) attacked this one as a blot on its memory.

It was, of course, impossible for any mere remake to have the impact or influence of the original. Among other things, the casting of a black lead was no longer shocking by then. But, largely, people who condemned this one condemned the very idea of it, rather than its execution. They hated that director Tom Savini chose to film this one in vivid color, instead of grainy black and white; they hated the sharp changes it made in the original story while simultaneously (and paradoxically) condemning it for going where Romero had gone before. In truth, consider it only as a film, without either the weight of an iconic original or the social background behind the initial release weighing it down, and it’s very much in the first film’s class, and can be sensibly defended as better.

Romero, who wrote the screenplay of this one as well, said at the time that he couldn’t just make a shot-by-shot remake; people knew the original so well by then that the remake would not be nearly as effective if everything just played out the same way. So he set up the same situation and the same conflicts and went elsewhere with them, starting just a few minutes in, when the first person to bump into Barbara (Patricia Tallman) is not a walking corpse, but a traumatized survivor of a prior massacre.

Barbara is just as traumatized, just as unresponsive, when she gets to the house as she was in the original film. When Ben (Tony Todd) shows up, she is just as unable to answer him. But circumstances soon force her to kill a zombie sneaking up behind her, and unlike the original Barbara she soon starts to (forgive us) rise to the occasion, stunningly becoming one of the strongest people in the house.

By the time the Ben / Harry antagonism begins, Barbara begins to reveal herself as having more sense and more guts than the two of them put together. She is the one who sees that the walking dead are so slow that wasting energy on barricading the windows or hiding in the cellar amounts to defending a deathtrap. She is the one who, told she’s losing it, coldly shoots an approaching zombie in the face and then angrily addresses the others:   “Whatever I lost, I lost a long time ago, and I do not plan on losing anything else. You can talk to me about losing it when you stop screaming at each other like a bunch of two-year-olds. “  (Patricia Tallman was so very good in the part, especially in this scene,that I expected major stardom for her; that never materialized, alas, though she worked regularly and was a supporting player on Babylon 5.)

Ben’s fallibility is brought closer to the forefront. At one point, he tackles Harry, who’s bringing a television downstairs. The TV is smashed, leading Ben to assault Harry for trying to sneak the TV into the cellar. Harry’s response – that he was bringing the TV downstairs for everybody, that it wouldn’t have gotten any reception in the basement – is stunning. Much earlier in the story, it becomes clear that Ben is actually part of the problem.

Nothing plays out exactly the same as it does in the original. Tom and Judy, the boring young couple nobody could stand in the first film, who get themselves and Ben’s truck blown up in a failed attempt to fill the gas tank, are not quite as bland here, and while they get themselves blown up here as well, via a similar act of clumsy panic, the mistake they make is entirely different. Helen’s death plays out differently. The final invasion of the house leads to an entirely different final confrontation between Harry and Ben (as well as the revelation that the house did include a perfect hiding place that nobody bothered to consider: the attic).

Barbara escapes by walking right past the zombies, just as she’s always contended everybody could, and what she does when she returns with help – coldly shoot the surviving Harry right through the head, and telling her companions in zombie-killing that he’s ‘”another one for the fire” —  underlines the substantial changes the night has wrought in her. She’s dead inside: a perfect denizen of the new world.

There was some impressive non-acting in this film as well, but most of the performances were better, and the pacing more assured. Tony Todd was an effective Ben, Tom Towles was an effective Harry, and Patricia Tallman was a powerful Barbara. The color cinematography was not quite as artful, but it had the benefit of being transparent: it did not get in the way of the story.

In short, the 1990 film is everything a remake should be. Aside from the accidents of casting and the contemporary background that boosted the original’s impact, which could not be duplicated, it matches just about every narrative strength of that original while justifying its own existence with a startling different take. It didn’t deserve the drubbing it got, and has fortunately been appreciated more and more as the years have passed.

No, if you want to see everything a remake should not be, just look at the most recent version.

The Awful Second Remake: Night Of The Living Dead 3-D (2006)

The makers of this version had a number of big ideas, none of them good.

Indeed, it is rare to see a remake that fails on so many levels, that has so many fundamentally bad notions, that showed such a universal misunderstanding of what made the original story work. Next to this, the Paris Hilton House Of Wax was a masterpiece.

We can’t testify to the effectiveness of that much-maligned 3-D process here, since we saw a 2-D version. But we can say that it would have needed to transform the visual aspects of this version to something on the level of Avatar to counter even one-tenth of the damage their other big ideas did to the story.

The danger signs start very early. In both prior versions, the teasing Barbara’s brother Johnny subjects her to in the cemetery ends as soon as the first zombie attacks; then the first zombie attacks, he sees that the danger is real, and he rushes to protect his sister, at the cost of his own life. This makes psychological sense, as it’s what a big brother would do. In this film, he runs to their car and drives away, abandoning her to her fate. That is the act of an unbelievable asshole, which doesn’t ring true at all. Still…all right. Maybe this Johnny really is just an asshole. If the rest of the movie were not filled with terrible ideas, maybe we could let it pass.

Alas, it is.

The biggest and worst of those ideas is the apparent premise that all the conflict inside the house, that doomed both prior sets of survivors to their unlucky fates, was boring and needed to be jettisoned. The second worst is the apparent belief that all the characters needed to be rendered more bland. As a result, this movie’s Ben (Joshua Desroses) is just a generic white college student who helps distribute the product of this film’s married Coopers , (Greg Traviss and Johanna Black), marijuana farmers who own the farmhouse and are thus perfectly at home there when “Barb” (Brianna Brown) shows up to tell everybody that the dead have risen.

Yes. The people behind this film actually thought the story would play better if Ben and Harry were friends, who knew each other and liked each other and didn’t argue so much.

Chew on that. It deserves repetition.

The people behind this film actually thought the story would play better if Ben and Harry were friends, who knew each other and liked each other and didn’t argue so much.

Having trouble digesting that, aren’t you?

The third worst innovation is that the confusion over the nature of the phenomenon that faces everybody, so clearly delineated in the first two films, is here removed completely. In the first two films, the phenomenon was treated as something almost beyond comprehension. But this film’s Barb knows the word “zombie” from seeing zombie movies herself, and bursts in on Coopers who are getting stoned while watching the 1968 version. They know exactly what she’s talking about; they’re just skeptical and reluctant to call the police to their pot farm. The conflict is reduced to Barb’s increasing frustration at them for being so thick and stupid – which they greet with a compassionate equanimity that goes on for way too long. It’s deadly to any suspense the film might have, even as the zombies start to accumulate in the yard.

The fourth worst is the removal of the disaster’s scale. Any implication that the rising of the dead is afflicting anybody but this one small group of people is simply omitted. We don’t get the horror from the first two films of a widespread disaster and of the radio and television reports sending people to shelters that are then described as overrun or no longer accepting refugees. So we lose that, too.

The next worst is the reduction of this film’s doomed Tom and Judy to a standard horror movie couple who we see fucking so we can then still see them get killed. They are the worst incarnation of Tom and Judy, and that’s saying something.

The result of all of this is that there’s no subtext, either by accident or design. It’s just stupid boring people being attacked by zombies, none of whom do anything we haven’t seen zombies do before. Even a bad zombie movie, like Flight Of the Living Dead,  can be remarkable for the cleverness of its zombie gags. But no.  For the first time, a Night Of the Living Dead movie is exactly what the detractors of the series would say it always was: a stupid exploitation movie without any ideas.

All of that, which serves only to establish that nobody involved with this thing had any idea why this story ever worked, and completely remove the character issues that gave the first and second versions whatever weight they had, is just background to their greatest innovation: casting horror-movie veteran Sid Haig as a mad mortician whose funeral home is the source of the contagion. It all, eventually, becomes about Haig acting crazy.  And it must be said that he does give the proceedings what little energy they have. But the character is a stupid innovation and he isn’t good enough to overcome a story which, ironically enough, has had all its life sucked out of it.

The Final Respects

The 1968 version, a hugely influential and still terrifying horror film. The 1990 version, a worthy remake marked by a genuinely different take. The 2006 version, nothing but rotten meat.

Thanks to K.C. Locke, who provided us with the 1990 version.

*

And now, the wife peers out through the barricaded window…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Night Of The Living Dead (1968). Directed by George A. Romero. Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman. 96 minutes. ***1/2

Night Of The Living Dead (1990). Directed by Tom Savini. Screenplay by George A. Romero, based on the 1968 screenplay by George Romero and John Russo. Starring Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles. 92 minutes.***

Night Of the Living Dead 3-D (2006). Directed by Jeff Broadstreet. Screenplay by Jeff Broadstreet, inspired by the 1968 Screenplay by George A. Romero and John Russo. Starring Brianna Brown, Sid Haig. 80 minutes. 0000000 NO!!!!!

Other Known VersionsNight Of the Living Dead Re-Animated (2009; jam animated version);  too many sequels and films inspired by the original concept to list.

I thought that this comparison was going to be an easy-peasy job based on having seen and loved the original and seen and hated everything about the third, but damn the middle version made it rough.

Let me warn anyone who even slightly enjoyed the 1968 NOTLD, DO NOT WATCH THE 2006 REMAKE!!  I REPEAT DO NOT WATCH THE 2006 REMAKE!  That so called movie takes everything that was right and tosses it to the winds.  Why bother with character development and plot, when special effects and action are available. OK. so fine,  the makers wanted to cash in on the 3D craze, so they threw in a few hokey effects.  I could deal with those as long as the story made sense, but come on guys, using the original film in your own really bad interpretation was just plain stupid!  Why invite the comparison? Were you so sure of your own greatness or just too dumb to realize the end result?

Now, let me admit to something a bit shameful.  I didn’t see the 1968 original film until sometime in the late 1970’s, and that in a cut to shreds version on local TV.  Of course, I doubt my parents would have allowed me to see it much before then, but I had snuck in a few nightmarish childhood treasures by that time (The Birds remains a favorite pre teen scare).  However, even that ripped apart, commercial-ridden version left me wanting more undead fun. I even placed the film into my pantheon of classic horror to be rewatched and savored alongside the Universal classics I so adored.  High praise for a little black and white film.  I finally got to see the film uninterrupted by ads and hopefully uncensored in college and realized there was an art to pulling the guts out of a writhing body.  Wow, even more coolness!  I was hooked like the proverbial big fish.  And again, I begged and pleaded for more, but none came. 

Sure, there were the sequels, but they just didn’t have the oomph I got from the first.  The magnetic draw just never occurred. And, while I enjoyed the Evil Dead movies for the fun romps they were, I still didn’t find the walking dead I needed to tickle my thrill bone.

By this point I had given up on ever seeing NOTLD remade with the proper respect, but thanks to this blog, I got most of my wish.  The 1990 version directed by Tom Savini and written by dead master/creator George Romero  reworks the original into an updated story, tighter and tauter than the original.  The film follows the same opening premise, but from there, most of the character conventions shift slightly.  We no longer have just the tough hero, we get a useful, tough Barbara instead of the whimpering, nearly comatose girl from the original.  Tony Todd and Patricia Tallman are not just folks  that were picked for their availability, they can act and did.  The nods of respect to the original are there throughout the film for the people who need that, but the changes make for a better film overall.  Why then, did it leave me just slightly disappointed?

When a masterwork is created no revision, even by the originator, is ever going to give me the same feeling of wonder/chills/awe, that the original had.  Is a copy of the Mona Lisa as good as seeing the original?  Is Beatlemania the same as having seen the Beatles perform live?  That’s the problem I have here.  The 1968 film crept into my soul and warped me permanently.  The 1990 Savini vision, while really good and eminently watchable, just becomes a poor cousin despite the fixing of the original’s flaws.  So, yes, watch both films.  Enjoy both for the works they are. And, please, I beg of you, DON’T WATCH THE 2006 3D NOTLD!   Pretend it doesn’t exist.  It will poison you.  In the immortal words of Latka Gravis, “Thankyou very much.”


Doing everything exactly the same, and still getting it all wrong

Can you imagine any movie trailer like this, today?

 

Newcomers were led to expect a fast-paced roller-coaster ride of shocks. Sorry.

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Psycho (1960). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and Vera Miles. 109 minutes. ****

Psycho (1998). Directed by Gus van Sant. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore. 109 minutes. *

Other Affiliated Films: Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986), Psycho IV: The Beginning (TV-movie, 1990), all starring Anthony Perkins; A Conversation with Norman (2005). There is reportedly a making-of-Psycho dramatic film also in the pipeline, but who knows if it will ever be completed?

*

Your name is Marion Crane. You’re a good girl aching for domestic bliss with your lover, a man from another town who returns your affections but is financially unable to commit. He tells you that until he can pay his father’s debts you will have to be content with stolen moments, the occasional hour of passion in a motel room, and the promise of a better tomorrow. You cannot wait. But then a boor doing business with your employer flashes a wad of cash, you are entrusted with the task of getting it to the bank…and you succumb to a moment’s mad temptation. You take the money, pack a passport, and hit the highway, hoping to talk your man into escaping the country with you. It’s a desperate and poorly-thought out plan, one that begins to fall apart even before you make it out of town. But your temporary madness is nothing compared to the greater madness that awaits you, in a small out-of-the-way motel with no guests and a desk clerk who seems as vulnerable, and as trapped, as yourself. It is where you will meet your annihilation…because this story was never really about about you. The story’s about the sad, lonely, and stammering little desk clerk, who harbors a madness dangerous to any who cross his path.

The original film Psycho is often given the directorial possessive, and listed as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, as if he was solely responsible for creating Norman Bates and structuring the plot. Entire forests have been cut down to print the articles and books crediting him with the genius required to get audiences invested in the fate of Marion Crane, and then to have her brutally murdered in a shower only one-third of the way through the story, changing the direction of the tale completely. It honestly isn’t so. The story wasn’t ushered into being by Hitchcock, but by one Robert Bloch, a veteran writer of pulp thrillers whose career included Lovecraftian fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, Star Trek episodes, a couple of the best stories ever written about Jack the Ripper, recognition as a grandmaster of both science fiction and horror, and a declaration frequently misattributed to Stephen King (who had provided attribution to Bloch when he said it), that he had the heart of a small boy…pickled in a jar on his desk.

It was Bloch who read of the gruesome murders committed by a Wisconsin loner named Ed Gein, speculated on just what kind of madness might have driven that strange man to furnish his home with such art objects as an armchair constructed of real arms, and applied his rich imagination to the creation of one Norman Bates, an affable homebody deadly only to those who cross his path. It was Bloch who was contacted by Hitchcock’s representatives, and not told just who had taken an interest in his story…Bloch who was paid a few hundred dollars for the story that he would soon see hailed worldwide as the manifestation of another creator’s genius.

Nor was this hogging of credit entirely Hitchcock’s sin. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano’s contribution to the original film was superb, but when discussing the film in interviews during his later years he would go on at length about the train of thought that led him to make certain story decisions, as if he and not Bloch had been the one to originally decide that Marion Crane would steal the money and meet her fate in that shower. Trust us, folks; Stefano and Hitchcock and the various actors all contributed to the splendid collaborative stew that is the 1960 Psycho, but as far as the grand outline of the story was concerned, they “decided” little. Again, it was Bloch who had his seeming protagonist, one Mary Crane, steal that money; it was Bloch who had her stop at the Bates Motel and befriend its pathetic proprietor; it was Bloch who had her lose her life in the shower; it was Bloch who arranged everything that happened with her sister, and Sam Loomis, and “Mrs. Bates” after that. Against pretty much the entire body of literature that’s been written about the movie in all the years since, Stefano and Hitchcock were interpreters: interpreters deft enough to qualify as artists, but still interpreters…and Bloch was swindled not out of the full payday he deserved, but also of the wider popular recognition he merited for his pivotal role in the creation of Norman Bates.

Which is not to deny the stamp that Stefano and Hitchcock put on the material. Bloch’s shower scene is very minimal, and ends almost as soon as Marion Crane realizes that she’s being attacked. The shock moment consists of two sentences, which I here paraphrase from memory: “The knife came down, cutting off her scream.” Paragraph break. “And her head.” I’m sorry to say, that’s pretty much it.  From that, Stefano and Hitchcock crafted one of the most indelible scenes in motion picture history.

Once, this was the most shocking movie moment anyone had ever seen.

Don’t feel too sorry for Bloch, as he enjoyed a long and productive and reportedly happy life, and did indeed profit from Psycho,  if not from the movie’s earnings then in increased book sales for the rest of his career.  It doesn’t mean Hitchcock behaved well in obtaining the rights, or in minimizing Bloch’s contribution afterward. As epilogue we note only that when Gus van Sant announced the plans for a shot-by-shot remake, there was no thought of rewarding Bloch’s estate with any additional payment…until a public outcry, way beyond the usual level of popular concern for what a writer might be owed, forced the backers to begrudgingly open their pocketbooks. Every once in a while, justice prevails. Or somewhat prevails. Given the millions the studios made from Psycho and its film sequels, Bloch still deserved more.

van Sant’s 1998 remake was ballyhooed as a thought experiment, dedicated to finding out whether a new version using the 1960 screenplay, as well as the 1960 Bernard Herrmann score, and the 1960 set design, that matched the Hitchcock version shot by shot, would have the same impact. Or at least, that was the rationalization, the one that may have motivated him as he pointed his camera. The motivation of the money men was more crass. By that time, we had a new generation of filmgoers with little respect for the past, who despite an unprecedented wealth of home-video opportunities open to them had nothing but revulsion for anything made before they were born…especially if it was in black and white.  And yet Norman Bates himself remained a familiar, marketable name, one that had driven a number of inferior but financially successful sequels, not to mention attractions in theme parks where macabre film-lovers could, among other things, buy Bates Motel towels and shower curtains imprinted with the murderous silhouette of Norman in the guise of his mother. A new color version that hit all the same beats as the original was, they thought, just the right thing to revive the brand.

It wasn’t. I saw it during its theatrical release out of sheer perverse curiosity, not expecting much, and was stunned by the hostility it received from a large audience that went in expecting to see their idea of a horror movie, and was bored beyond endurance by this lame, slow-ass story where the killings were few and far between and reprehensibly bloodless by the standards they had come to expect. Though van Sant has claimed that it eventually broke even, it is remembered as a bomb and has largely disappeared except as a cautionary tale. It is certainly almost never seen on television, whereas Psycho 1960 still plays in revival houses and pops up regularly on all the classic-oriented movie channels, to be cooed over by hosts and enjoyed anew by viewers who recognize it as a still very much living relic.

But the question remains. Why doesn’t the remake work?

Smallest Problem: The Tin-Eared Updating From 1960 to 1998

For the most part the updating manifests as how much things cost. Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane steals $40,000;  Anne Heche’s steals $400,000. There are similar adjustments to the price of a used car and the cost of a cheap, no-name motel room. That’s reasonable.

Other updates are just tin-eared, like Julianne Moore’s Lila Crane declaring, “Let me get my Walkman,” before accompanying Sam Loomis to ask the local sheriff some pointed questions. (Yes, when your sister’s vanished into thin air following the theft of a large amount of money, and you don’t know whether she’s alive or dead, your first thought should be having some tunes to bring along.) 

One of the minor plot points that remains intact is Marion’s boss at the real-estate firm (Rance Howard) telling his client to join him in his own office, the only room which happens to be air-conditioned. In 1960, it was reasonable and believable for a real estate office in downtown Phoenix, of all places, to reserve air-conditioning for the boss, and force the rest of the firm’s employees to sit in the general reception area and sweat. The lack of air conditioning was after all a key requirement of a great movie Hitchcock had made only a few years earlier, Rear Window. In 1998, air conditioning was far more ubiquitous. The girls in the front room, not to mention the drop-in customers waiting to be helped, would have not only expected but demanded it. (I suspect that matters will change back in the coming decades.) Again, this is a small point. But since it doesn’t really affect the flow of the story one way or the other, why not omit the line or adjust it in some way?

At least one other change that assaults the ear has to do with an entire word leaving the popular vocabulary: in the original film, the dogged private detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) tells the evasive Norman, ”Well, if it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jellin’.” As was also pointed out in the recent film Julie and Julia, people don’t really eat aspic anymore and for the most part have no idea what the word means. So the remake’s Arbogast (William H. Macy) says, “If it doesn’t jell, it isn’t jello.” Which may be more current, but still lands with a thud. The solution may have been to just use the “aspic” line as is, accept that it’s a bit odd to the modern ear, and let its essential meaning come across through context; either that, or drop it completely.

What may be more serious is the second film’s Arbogast dressed in a snappy blue suit with matching hat that together look positively antiquarian to the modern eye, telling Lila that he could trail her undetected because it’s his job to avoid being seen; a plot point that makes sense in the original film when Arbogast is an average-looking guy who dresses like everyone else and makes less sense in the remake when, in context, he looks like an escapee from an old-time movie. In truth, Lila should respond, “You haven’t been unnoticed, mister. I’ve been noticing your  hat everywhere I went all day.”

Nor is that the only generational fashion faux-pas. When the second film’s Marion Crane gets out of her car and unfurls a pink parasol to protect her from the Arizona sun, my audience audibly snorted.

Larger Problem: The Terrible Miscasting of Norman Bates

One of the biggest changes between the original novel and the first film was the physical look of Norman Bates. Bloch’s Bates was a pudgy little man in the first throes of middle age, obvious to Mary Crane’s eyes as a guy who had been so dominated by the mother over the years that he’d never had a life of his own. It was believable that she felt sorry for him and saw him as no threat. Faithful adherence to Bloch’s description would have resulted in the casting of Rod Steiger, or maybe even Ernest Borgnine. Today, it might have been Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Stefano and Hitchcock decided to go another way. They decided it was critical for their audience to like Norman Bates and feel empathy for him. So they cast a slight, boyish young actor named Anthony Perkins, who had played young leading-man roles as, among other things, the young town sheriff opposite Henry Fonda in The Tin Star. As Bates, Perkins projected a loneliness and a vulnerability that rendered Marion Crane’s immediate compassion for him entirely believable. It made sense for this young woman, on her own with 40,000 reasons to be afraid, to agree to join this total stranger in his parlor, to listen to him and to feel for him, and to see in his tale of a life trapped with a deranged mother not a potential danger that would lead her to get back in her car and drive away as fast as possible, but an object lesson in the trap she’s made for herself and a reason to return home to face the consequences of her actions. It made sense, all in all, for her to like Norman, even when she suggests institutionalization for his mother and gets a flash of anger in return. Who wouldn’t like that Norman? Watching the scene, it’s even possible to believe that had she left the motel alive, returned to Phoenix with the stolen money, avoided serious legal consequences  and then come back to town to settle down with Sam Loomis, she would have sought out Norman again, this time as a concerned friend, and tried to help him.

All of this was central to the impact of the story as intended. Marion’s subsequent murder in the shower really does come off as a shocking twist, even if it’s already been spoiled for us by reputation or previous viewings. And Norman’s subsequent horrified reaction and desperate efforts to clean up after the killing do come off as the trapped actions of a man trying to protect his homicidal mother. It even comes off this way if you go in already knowing that Norman pretty much is his mother. His horror feels genuine.

You know who would have been able to project the same qualities while making the performance his own? Ed Norton.

Instead, van Sant went with Vince Vaughn, a big guy far broader and more imposing than Anthony Perkins, who looks even more massive when photographed alongside his film’s Marion Crane, the petite Anne Heche. He is able to manage a goofy, frat-boy affability during their initial meeting, but after that, when he presses Crane to join him for dinner and later discusses his sad circumstances with her, the likeability goes away and all that’s left is a seething, oversized man-child whose eyes go cold and distant when he talks about his mother.

Yeah. I can totally dig Marion being willing to share a roof with this guy.

It is difficult to tell whether this more sinister characterization of Norman is a poor acting choice by Vaughn or a directorial decision on the part of van Sant, reflecting the inescapable fact that most of the people who saw this movie would enter the theatre already aware that Norman Bates kills people. But it’s fatal to the scene and a serious blow to the movie. An ominous Norman Bates makes Marion Crane look like an idiot. In 1960, when Janet Leigh tells Anthony Perkins that she can’t have breakfast with him the next morning because she needs to get an early start, it’s an attractive woman being kind to a stranger who doesn’t get to speak to many attractive women, and who she can tell already harbors a substantial crush on her. In 1998, when Anne Heche has the same conversation with Vince Vaughn, it’s a tiny woman who has become profoundly creeped out by the big hulking man…and who out of incomprehensible recklessness doesn’t change her plans to spend the night in his hotel. Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane honestly doesn’t think she has reason to fear. Anne Heche’s Marion Crane is rendered nervous, but remains in a room next to the office of the scary hulking man with the master key. It’s a spike through the very heart of the story, harming everything that follows.

And it’s not the only one.

Stranger Problem: Changes Crass, Repulsive and Nonsensical

van Sant’s mission statement of directing a line by line, shot by shot remake to the contrary, the changes he made to his Psycho are not only obvious, but gross.

Some are understandable. For instance, he extends the climax slightly. When Lila Crane finds the mummified corpse of Norman’s mother and Norman rushes in wearing wig and housedress to murder her, Van Sant’s Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortenson) needs to struggle with him a little bit more in order to subdue him.

This makes perfect logical sense in that this film’s Norman Bates is a bigger guy, larger in fact than this film’s Loomis.

And it also makes commercial sense in that the generations of thrillers since the original Psycho have trained  audiences to expect more substantial action climaxes than the mere moment or two Hitchcock provided in the original. (It still wasn’t enough, as per the reaction of the theatrical audience I saw it with, when they realized that the struggle was already over…but it could have been worse; van Sant could have gone whole hog and constructed a climax more in tune with the new era’s sensibilities, complete with an extended battle in a burning house and a bad guy who kept coming to life after being presumed dead.)

Some of the other changes are unfortunate, but forgivable. The original shower scene is justifiably famous for implying extreme violence while never actually showing the knife touch Marion’s flesh. This film’s version duplicates it almost shot by shot (the exception being a few inexplicable inserts of rolling clouds), but makes sure that we see the gaping wounds in Marion’s back as she collapses over the rim of the tub.

Some are repulsive and unnecessary. It was creepy enough, in the original film, when Norman Bates peered through the hole in the wall and spied on Marion in her room. We didn’t really need to see him hyperventilating or hear the vivid moist sounds of masturbation…in part because it’s vulgar, and in part because it prematurely erases any sympathy we might feel for the man. (This is by far van Sant’s most irritating move.)

And finally, some are nonsensical.

This scene is also known as WTF: THE MOTION PICTURE.

What on Earth was van Sant thinking, when he added a random shot of a cow on a highway, and another of a blindfolded woman reclining on a bed, to Arbogast’s murder on the stairway? What did he think this communicated, other than random film-school absurdity?

The Fatal Problem: We already know who Norman Bates is 

Scroll back up and watch the trailer for the remake again. Does it hide Norman’s nature, or trumpet it? Is this now a story driven by an unexpected twist at the one-third mark and shocking one at the conclusion, or by the dreary inevitability of an icon behaving exactly as we expect him to behave?

The 1960 Psycho was not born already imbedded in amber. It was paced for its time, driven by twists unexpected at the time, and appreciated as something new by the audiences of the time. Though now devoid of surprises, it can still be appreciated for the better mousetrap that it is. By contrast, the 1998 version was for audiences who could never be fooled into thinking that the movie was about Marion Crane’s theft, or a fundamentally innocent man trying to hide the crimes of a deranged mother. Remade beat for beat for people who know going in that Norman Bates was a crazy murderer, but too interested in paying obeisance to that original to offer them anything but strict adherence to that blueprint, it completely failed to achieve audience identification with either the main victim Marion or the just as sympathetic killer Norman. It played the notes but did not make the music. It’s no wonder that modern audiences, expecting a modern horror film, sighed with exasperation at the dullness of everything they saw on screen. van Sant did not have to emulate the murder-every-fifteen-minutes pacing of Friday the 13th with his Norman Bates, but what he made was as lifeless, really, as Norman’s mother, moldering in her rocking chair in the basement.

It might have been possible to remake Psycho in a manner that incorporated its main secret as already common knowledge. In fact, it’s been done, in a way. Starting in 1983, Anthony Perkins made a series of sequels that began with Norman Bates released from the mental hospital as “cured,” and went on to elicit thrills over uncertainty over just how unstable he really was. They weren’t great films – in fact, they were largely derided by critics – but they were all far more entertaining than van Sant’s distorted carbon copy remake. I liked Psycho II, in particular,  quite a bit, for presenting us with a story where Norman really is trying to atone for the insane crimes of his past despite Marion’s vengeful relatives  trying to drive him back to a state of madness. It was easy to feel sorry for Norman, in that movie. There was nothing in van Sant’s subsequent straight remake that matched the sheer geeky wit of that endearing moment in Psycho II when Norman Bates, desperately struggling to behave better now, declines to slice a female guest’s sandwich, telling her, “I have a problem with c-c-cutlery.” Anthony Perkins acts the hell out of that moment.

Norman does ultimately return to killing, of course. And he is returned to the asylum at the end of Psycho III. But I always took deep satisfaction in the final moment of the final sequel, Psycho IV: The Beginning, a made-for-TV movie – also written by Stefano — about the events that twisted him in the first place, where the Norman Bates of the framing sequence, mysteriously paroled from the asylum again, ultimately seems cured for good and ready for an unlikely but still gratifying happy ending that includes marriage to a loving young woman and the implied birth of his child. This redemption made almost no psychological or real-world sense, but I liked Norman enough to embrace it. I’m a wuss that way.

For what it’s worth, Robert Bloch’s own version of Norman’s aftermath, the novel Psycho II, was quite different. It’s all about a series of murders that follows Norman’s escape from the asylum. Norman, who is off-stage after the first couple of chapters, seems the obvious culprit, but the book ends with the revelation that he died soon after going over the wall, and that almost all of the recent killings attributed to him were committed by another character entirely. It’s an interesting use of a legendary monster as mere red herring, but feels like a betrayal. Ambivalent as Bloch may have been about his signature creation, Norman Bates really did deserve better than that.

In any event, van Sant received more than his share of abuse by people who called him a talentless hack for his stunt, but let us be honest about this much. He tried something that failed. That’s all. And he has more than earned his way out of purgatory with some of  the work he’s done since then, including the splendid biopic Milk.

As for the man who really started all this, crazy old murderous Ed Gein: he continued to have a tremendous impact on the world of motion pictures, as his crimes also separately inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill from Silence Of the Lambs.

*

And now, the wife’s ominous silhouette comes into view behind the shower curtain…!

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Psycho (1960). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and Vera Miles. 109 minutes. ****

Psycho (1998). Directed by Gus van Sant. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore. 109 minutes.

Other Affiliated Films: Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986), Psycho IV: The Beginning (TV-movie, 1990), all starring Anthony Perkins; A Conversation with Norman (2005). There is reportedly a making-of-Psycho dramatic film also in the pipeline, but who knows if it will ever be completed?

Thank you so much, my loving hubby.

Who decided that Psycho needed to be remade?

Was this one of those late night drunk then wake up in the morning kinda What have I done deals?

It had to be for the remake to so totally miss the mark.

OK, An updating is never a totally bad idea, but you gotta go all in or fold the hand (too many hours playing online poker).  The folks here knew they couldn’t best the original, so they decided to copy and tweak it.  Fine, but again come on and play like ya mean it.  Everything is mixed between 50’s and 90’s .  The dresses look like someone went to a 60’s vintage shop and said give me the ugliest ya got plus the accessories.  And every PI tries to blend in by wearing the Ward Cleaver off to work look.  I mean they are going from a sweltering city to an unused motel and nobody seems to feel that shorts and a t shirt might fit a bit better?  And, besides some older ladies and a few younger Latinos, I have yet to see a parasol in regular sun use. And I live in the Sunshine state.

The big surprises in the course of Psycho worked back then because they were surprising.  Now, the shower/murder scene comes across as toothless as a defanged vampire.  All bloody and wet, but not very scary. And lets face it, Vince Vaughn doesn’t look like he’d have any problem lifting away Anne Heche’s remains. I mean at least the movie goer had a reasonable doubt whether Tony Perkins could actually manhandle Janet Leigh’s body ( and I mean that in the nicest way possible guys).

Oh, AND ONE MORE THING, who the hell decided that the Daliesque images enhanced the fall down the stairs?  Talk about throwing the scene out of whack.  Is it supposed to be his memories or just some random last thoughts?  HUH?!?!  I just didn’t get it.  Did anyone?

Alright, So two guys walk into a bar and one guy says Hey, I’ve got a few million lying around, lets make a movie.  The other guy says sure and they begin to drink.  That’s the joke and the punch line was this remake.


In which that lifelike wax sculpture was once an innocent girl with the misfortune to resemble Joan of Arc

 

 

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Glenda Farrell. 77 minutes. ** 1/2

House Of Wax (1953). Directed by Andre De Toth. Screenplay by Crane Wilbur, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Charles Buchinsky (Bronson). 90 minutes. ** 1/2

House of Wax (2005). Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera. Screenplay by Charles Hayes and Carey Hayes, from the story (note difference) by Charles Belden. Starring Elisha Cuthbert, Paris Hilton, Brian van Holt. 113 minutes.  1/2

*

None of them were meant to be immortal. They were all conceived as throwaway entertainments, providing thrills and chills for the popcorn set; the first two weren’t even intended to be particularly scary, though those of us who recall seeing at least one of them in a motion picture auditorium may recall a time or two when a jump scare elicited some screams from its audience. The first features one of the damnedest love stories you’ve ever seen. The second reaches its peak entertainment value with a special effect that has nothing whatsoever to do with its story. The third has a climax of truly transcendent dumbness. There’s precious little intended subtext in any of them.

We’re talking about the three Houses of Wax, all of them horror films set in and around the titular tourist destinations, which are all run by mad craftsmen who achieve realism in their sculptures by entombing their hapless victims in paraffin. Each one of them features a hideously disfigured murderer, and a catastrophic fire that consumes the buildings and melts the sculptures to bubbling puddles. Beyond that, though, the differences are instructive. Each in their own way, they all embody the nature of popular filmmaking in their respective times. Stretching the point somewhat further than the evidence will bear, you could even look at all three and call them a history of the decline of movie-making, over the course of a little more than seventy years. It’s not entirely fair, since bad movies were made back then and good movies are still being made now, but a case can still be made from these three levels of celluloid archeological strata. You’ll see why.

Mystery Of the Wax Museum (1933) 

The first film (directed by Michael Curtiz, who would later make The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca) presents us with the case of one Ivan Igor, pronounced Eye-Gor (Atwill), a London sculptor whose small wax museum stresses tableaux of great historical events, inspirational evocations of subjects like motherhood, and beautiful heroines like Joan of Arc, over the sensational commemorations of crime and violence that draw many more paying customers to another such establishment across town. It’s the old dilemma pitting aesthetic vs. commercial considerations, here complicated by a creator who talks to his sculptures as if they’re really flesh-and-blood people, and a business partner named Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) who would just as soon burn the place down and collect ten thousand pounds in insurance money. The two men grapple and throw punches even as flames engulf Igor’s life’s work, and Worth escapes believing Igor dead and the insurance pay-out his and his alone.

It is interesting to note that in both this film and the 1953 House Of Wax, the Worth figure is a villain but not an absolute one. He has no love for Igor’s art and has nothing but impatience for his partner’s creative principles, but initially wants to play fair with him within the context of his intended crime. He proposes the arson scheme as something that will rebound to the benefit of both men, and fully expects to share the ill-gotten proceeds fifty-fifty. This doesn’t render his actions any less callous in terms of leaving the wax sculptor behind to die, and happily spending the insurance money afterward. It just makes him a guy who considers himself the artist’s friend even when he expects that the artist will happily collude in destroying the work for short-term profit. I’ve worked for at least one publisher like that.

In any event, time passes. The action moves to 1933 New York City. Dead bodies start disappearing from the morgue. Igor arrives in the city, older and mostly confined to a wheelchair (with crutches hanging from a rack on the back). He cannot sculpt anymore, as his burned hands no longer possess the same level of control, but he continues his work with the aid of assistants and apprentices (that include Hugo, a sinister deaf-mute), and is about to open a newer and larger wax museum. The problem, of course, is that some of the figures on display look an awful lot like corpses recently stolen from the morgue.

The chief narrative problem here and in the 1953 version is that anybody in the audience who can’t put all this offered information together, perform the necessary math, and figure out that there’s something other than plaster beneath the wax veneers of the figures on display has likely never seen a movie before, and that since the plot is largely an exercise in marking time until the breathless revelation of the secret we already know, we need some other reason to watch in the interim.

In 1933, that’s the spectacle of the tough lady reporter Florence (Farrell), who is fast-talking, cynical, hard-edged, dumbfounding, rude, and pretty much nonstop funny, especially in her interactions with her editor-in-chief, who seems to hate her and who she seems to hate back. She tells him, “I’m gonna make you eat dirt you soap bubble!” She tells another man, “You can go to some nice warm place…and I don’t mean California!” She leads the police to a crate she imagines to be the coffin of a recent murder victim, discovers it filled with bootleg liquor instead, and instead of just slinking off in embarrassment packs her coat with as much as she can carry. Almost every line that comes out of her mouth is verbal gold, and her angry back-and-forth with her editor leads to a punch line good enough to render all the previous jiggery-pokery with crazed murderers and entombed corpses look like it was just a distraction from what the story was secretly about all along.

This is, in short, one of the few cases where the female protagonist of a horror film is as rich and as well conceived as the menace she must confront. (Another, many years later, would be Silence of the Lambs.) She’s far better than the story she’s in, certainly far better than either of the male leads, who are both dull in different ways…or for that matter her best friend, the imperiled Charlotte (Fay Wray), a “good girl” with the misfortune to look like Igor’s idea of Marie Antoinette, and who aside from the terrific set of screaming pipes you expect from that actress, really doesn’t have much else to distinguish her. She’s just a screaming ninny.

In short, despite some expressionistic sets that employ wonderful arrangements of light and shadow, this is best perceived as a romantic comedy starring Florence that has happened to wander into a horror film and then wandered out again.

(Not incidentally, most current prints look awful. The movie was filmed in Technicolor, but was never properly cared-for. Though a perfect theatrical restoration exists, the most recent transfer to home DVD on the flip side of the 1953 version made serious tint-adjustment errors that resulted in looking weak and washed-out, almost like a bad colorization of a film originally shot in black-in white.)

House Of Wax (1953)

The second film changes the name of the mad sculptor to Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) and the name of the young woman who begins to suspect what he’s up to to  Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk). Sue is particularly drawn to the figure of Joan of Arc, who bears a remarkable resemblance to her murdered best friend Cathy (Carolyn Jones). The creepy deaf-mute assistance is Igor (here pronounced Ee-gor, and played by the future Charles Bronson).

Price was already an established actor whose gallery of roles had included the villainous Counselor (note: not Cardinal) Richelieu in the Gene Kelly version of The Three Musketeers. He had never been in a horror film before, but this and his subsequent performance in The Fly would soon make him one of the go-to-guys for macabre movies, a streak of good fortune that only extended his professional shelf-life as he aged. His Jarrod is not the angry, embittered, almost abusive sculptor that Atwill’s character became post-catastrophe, but a wry, amusing, charming figure who deeply enjoys regaling his guests with the provenance of the horrors on display. It’s a far more entertaining performance than Atwill’s, though that is more than countered by the movie’s insistence on jettisoning the 1933 film’s funny and resourceful heroine in favor of one who is bland, helpless, and pretty much devoid of personality. (Her doomed friend Cathy, who is also a ninny but who happens to be an entertaining ninny with an adorably annoying titter to recommend her, is much more interesting, but audiences should not get attached to her.)

The absence of a protagonist worth following means that the film must get by on style, of which it has plenty, and on the gimmickry of 3-D, which is both the movie’s saving grace and its biggest flaw. It’s the saving grace because the makers of the film recognize it’s their most powerful argument and therefore stage a number of scenes that exploit the device to its fullest advantage, notably by lingering at length on a dance-hall act with leggy dancers kicking their gams at the audience, and even better in a scene where a street performer regales audiences outside the museum with paddleball tricks, that amount to launching that leashed ball at the camera multiple times in rapid succession. At one point he even says he sees someone out there with a bag of popcorn, and it’s clear that he’s not talking to anybody in the movie, but to some moviegoer laughing his ass off in a theatre. Or rather, all moviegoers laughing their asses off, everywhere. Even after Avatar and others, this may be the single most bravura 3-D sequence of all time, simply because it revels in the sheer goofy fun of the technology, without caring much that it has nothing to do with the story.

I hope you have a pair of red/green 3D glasses around the house.

Of course, watching the same scene in 2-D is less satisfying…and the same came be said for the dance-hall scene, which is even more transparently gratuitous because of the amount of time spent on it and because it clearly represents a gimmick that halts the story for no reason. I shouldn’t even have to mention the final shot where the cop holds up the wax bust of Charles Bronson and brandishes it at the camera, just so audiences can ooh and ahh one last time.

Deprived of the strange character twist that defines the 1933 version, this one brings a basic flaw of the story into sharp relief: to wit, neither one has a good climax. Each film builds to its respective mad sculptor in the middle of preparing to “immortalize” some innocent woman as Marie Antoinette with a nice shiny coat of wax, when the cops bust in and he ends up running around in circles and eventually falling into the vat of wax itself. But in neither case do the protagonists have much to do with that; the cops get the goods on him independently and just happen to show up in time to break the door down. This is convenient but does little for the effectiveness of the heroes. It’s lame. And while this didn’t matter so much in 1933, when the heroine still had a terrific punch line coming, it’s pretty flat storytelling in 1953, when she’s not all that compelling a person and her last scene consists of little more than a “thank you.”

But it’s still one of the best 3-D movies ever made…a distinction not to be confused with the best movies ever made in 3-D, which would be another list entirely, probably topped by Dial M For Murder.

So the 1933 version represents a story that gets by on character, and the 1953 version represents a story that gets by on a technological gimmick. And the 2005 version?

House of Wax (2005)

The most recent visit to the wax museum makes one good decision: moving the museum fire, the most exciting sequence in either of the two prior versions, to the climax. This only makes sense, as thrillers want to move toward their most intense moments, not away from them.

But it jettisons the bare bones of the first two and instead gives us a gaggle of tiresome contemporary college students on a road trip, who we quickly and definitively decide to be compelling only to the degree that we must compellingly despise them. As must happen, they “take a shortcut” and have “car trouble” and “split up” and wind up in an entire freaking town, abandoned and forgotten in the age of GPS, with nobody on the streets and no apparent population but for a mechanic and his deformed brother (both played by Brian Holt), who between them have been capturing motorists to make them permanent exhibits in the wax museum that is the town’s most prominent feature.

We need not spend too much time on this. We need note, first, that the odds of any modern horror movie being at all good seems to be inversely proportional to the number of protagonists introduced at the onset. If just one or two, then we stand a chance of whatever happens next being about people whose souls we know and whose fate concerns us. The movie will likely follow something that resembles a plot and involve something more than slaughters at regular intervals. If instead we’re quickly introduced to a small crowd of interchangeable pretty faces who bitch at one another, then we know that the numbers are so high largely because the movie intends on killing them regularly and that everything else about them will be subordinate to that purpose.

After far too much time spent following this particular insipid bunch on their road trip, the plot starts to creak, past the discovery of a pit of rotting roadkill to car woes that lead two of the group to accept a ride they shouldn’t, to a one-block town with no visible people. Of course, it takes forever for the heroine Carly (Elisha Cuthbert) and boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki) to notice that the town is about as lively as an abandoned movie set. When they are inevitably separated, Wade is first to get the wax treatment, which in this case leaves its victims still alive, if immobile, inside that coating, an element that allows Wade to act eloquently with his irises when another in this inexhaustible band of idiots, Dalton (Jon Abrahams), tries to free him and takes forever to realize that peeling the wax off removes the skin as well. Meanwhile, the villain captures Carly, straps her to a chair, and crazy-glues her lips shut. This is pretty nasty, but since she frees herself from her bonds within minutes and physically pries her lips apart with her fingers so she can go back to screaming, the worst effect the crazy glue has is rendering her lips raw and bloody, which in practice just makes her look like she’s wearing bright red lipstick. (Her speech remains unaffected.) But she does get the tip of one finger chopped off, so that’s something.

In the place of the offended and wronged artists Lionel Atwill and Vincent Price played in the first two movies, both driven mad by crimes committed against them after they tried to adhere to a matter of principle, we have Bo and Vincent Sinclair (both played by Brian van Holt), who started life as Siamese twins born to a disgraced surgeon and a lady wax sculptor seen in flashbacks and family photos that place a strange amount of emphasis on how much Mom smoked. The boys, Bo and Vincent (ha-ha, Vincent), kill people because they’re just plain insane. It’s no more than a lifestyle choice. Not for this movie the operatic villainy of once-gentle but tragically wronged souls. These guys are just plain bad, which of course enables Vincent to survive a crossbow shaft through the chest and rise from what nobody in the audience is fooled into thinking of as death, to chase Carly some more.

Paris Hilton is in the movie, as  Paige. She and her boyfriend are parked miles away from any of these occurrences, having sex, and therefore spend much of the film having little to do with the gathering menace. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that she’s just in the film so she can strip for her boy-toy and thus attract the kind of audiences who know what she did to become famous. Ultimately, one of the killers shows up, kills the guy and chases Paige, ultimately killing her, affecting the main plot not much at all. Between them, their purpose here is to serve as subsidiary victims, making sure that not too many minutes go by without somebody getting impaled on something. Of Hilton’s performance I can say only that she manages more on-screen than she does in her life as a personality famous for being famous by displaying considerably more than one facial expression.

It all leads up to the fire in the museum, which is actually, literally, I mean seriously literally, a House of Wax, so that the staircase and the furniture and the walls get all mushy as Carly and her brother try to evade killers as the entire building turns soft as snot all around them. In the entire history of mad slasher movies, this may be the one, the one, where it’s least advisable to flee up the stairs. Expect a scene where her brother tries to run up after her and sinks ankle-deep in the ooze. Expect one of the evil siamese-twin brothers to fall through the floor and land dead on top of the other brother, in a position that precisely duplicates their orientation before surgery. That’s convenient.

So, to the 1933 movie’s focus on character and the 1953 movie’s reliance on a technological gimmick, we can add the 2005 movie’s thudding obviousness, overt sadism, and a level of literalism that works only if the members of the audience can be trusted to be as bone-stupid as the moviemakers seem to perceive them. As dire histories of the art of moviemaking go, you really can’t get any more metaphorical than that.

The Wax Seal

1933 version, a dated and damaged but still enjoyable relic. 1953 version, a nostalgic treat with plenty of remaining charm. 2005 version, ugly idiocy for ugly idiots, one of the worst films of recent years.

And now, the wife chimes in…

***

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Glenda Farrell. 77 minutes. ***

House Of Wax (1953). Directed by Andre De Toth. Screenplay by Crane Wilbur, from the play by Charles Belden. Starring Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Charles Buchinsky (Bronson). 90 minutes. ***1/2

House of Wax (2005). Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera. Screenplay by Charles Hayes and Carey Hayes, from the story (note difference) by Charles Belden. Starring Elisha Cuthbert, Paris Hilton, Brian van Holt. 113 minutes. 1/2

Pardon me for a moment, but does anyone out there have a bit of steel wool for my brain?  Why, oh why, did the worst of these films have to also be the longest?  Oh darn!  I just gave away the ending of my piece didn’t I?  Oh well, it matters not, for I expect most folks who have seen the three films under discussion here have already drawn the same conclusion: that the 2005 remake SUCKS.

I don’t hate horror films.  I love a suspenseful slasher flick a la the original Halloween of the original Psycho, but let’s face it, kids, there ain’t no such thing in the latest version of House of Wax.  Let’s see, we have sex, annoying friend, bully, good girl, bad girl and black guy.  The only thing I had to play with was which order they were going to get offed.  No original attacks and as for supposedly college bound kids, Woe for our future! Any surprises? Nope.  Any squirming anticipatory moments? Not here.  Nope not much of anything that could be called innovative or fun.  So were we supposed to watch this just for the Paris Hilton semi-strip?  I will give the special effects guys a mild thumbs up for all the great melting effects, but the previous films at least used them to emphasize the point, here it was more of a” look what we can do these days”.  Gak, please save me from the idiocy of this mindset.

Then my sanity was recovered(partially, I do still live with a writer and participate in this blog).  We re-watched the 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum and I couldn’t prevent myself from enjoying the snappy patter and decent acting.  There’s something about the screenwriters then, they didn’t write down to the audience.  On the contrary, they dared the viewers to try to keep up.  So much fun!  One question that just always hits me, who opens a new business, especially a touristy thing, downtown on New Year’s day?  I mean, is anybody even able to go out?    And who would want to see a wax museum with a hangover?  Really!!!

And finally, for the sake of truthfulness, I didn’t re-watch the 1953 HOW, mainly because it has become a favorite from childhood.  My first viewing was at summer camp on a rainy day.  I was blown away and even though my cynicism has exploded over the years, my sheer enthusiasm for this film has never waned.  When Adam and I decided to do this column, I lobbied for this to be one of the first just so I could watch and discuss it again.  Vincent Price is a snake charming menace.  Charles Bronson gets to play mute artist.  Carolyn Jones gets to be quiet for most of the film.  And I get to watch 3-D effects that don’t bug the hell out of me.  Gosh, what more is needed?  Oh yeah, I get to remember that awesome early melt scene.  That is what really remains with me.  People (ok wax dummies) melting like the wicked witch.  Just too cool!

Ok, so you see, I am a bit prejudiced here.  So, I say give the first two films a fair shake, but NEVER EVER EVER succumb and watch the 2005 remake!