Posts Tagged ‘House of Wax’


Forget Captain America. I wanna see more movies about the adventures of that President.

Really Awful
Somewhat better

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Captain America (1990). Directed by Albert Pyun.  Written by Stephen Tolkin and Lawrence Block (yes, the famous mystery writer, Lawrence Block). From the character by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Starring Matt Salinger, Ronny Cox, Darren McGavin, Scott Paulin, and Ned Beatty. 97 minutes. 1/2 *.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley. From the character by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci. 124 minutes. ***

Other Notable Film Versions, Not Covered By Us:  Captain America (very racist 1944 serial, pitting a barely-recognizable version of Cap against Japanese saboteurs); 3 Dev Adam, copyright-flouting 1973 Turkish film teaming a version of Cap with a version of the Mexican masked wrestler Santo, against a strangely villainous version of Spider-Man (we are not making this up); two TV-movies starring Reb Brown, Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon (both 1979). The latter is the most notable directing credit of Ivan Nagy, who is really best known for his appearance in the documentary Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, which paints him as the unheralded sinister force behind the scenes of that big tabloid story.

The greatest brainchild of the legendary pair of comic-book creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, was a scrawny but stout-hearted 4-F named Steve Rogers who received a super-soldier formula that turned him into that star-spangled sentinel of freedom known as Captain America. He fought Nazis in World War Two, and according to later Marvel lore suffered a span of decades in suspended animation. Revived, he battled a new generation of foes as a man out of time and a key member of that super-group known as the Avengers. Along the way he picked up an arch-enemy, the Red Skull, who had been personally chosen by Adolf Hitler himself to embody the terror of the Third Reich…and who also survived the years unchanged, to become one of the most persistent super-villains in comic book history.

There have been a number of versions, from an 1940s serial that bore little but name in common with the Simon and Kirby creation, to a pair of bland TV movies that are largely remembered today because the second of the pair was directed by a guy who seemed to have had a Svengali relationship with the Hollywood Madam,  but we direct our attention to the two most recent: one of which was so bad in every respect that it qualifies as one of the worst superhero movies of all time, and the recent big-budget release, which is no total masterpiece but nevertheless does as well with the character as any film could reasonably have been expected to.

Both movies jigger the origins of Cap and his numero-uno bad guy, in a way the comics never did, by establishing that they were created by the same scientist, who in fact creates Cap in large part to atone for the primal sin of having previously created the Red Skull. (This is not the pravda of the comics. There, the Red Skull is a lowly bellboy singled out by Hitler as proof that the right training can turn even that nonentity into the most dangerous man in the Reich. And, ummm, a communist imposter pretending to be him killed Peter Parker’s parents, thus making him an important figure in Spider-Man’s life as well.)

Both movies feature an origin scene for Cap that plays the same notes to significantly different effect; and both duplicate a fiery crash into Arctic ice that preserves the Captain until he can revived in our time.

But the movies are otherwise quite different, in that one is a film of almost jaw-dropping ineptitude that wastes the skills of every actor involved in it, and the other does what it does well and is expected to achieve blockbuster status. It’s instructive, in light of the latter’s success, to see how outrageously one can fail.

Captain America (1990): Before The Ice

There’s no way to get around this. This is not just a dud. This is not just a disaster. This is a film made by people who a) didn’t care; b) didn’t understand; c) didn’t seem interested in whether we could see their entire lack of interest in the enterprise; and d) screwed up even on the minimal level of their ambitions. It is likely the worst-made film we have ever reviewed on this blog, and, remember, we reviewed the awful third versions of House Of Wax and Night Of The Living Dead. Both of those atrocities were masterpieces next to this thing. We are serious.

The relatively low budget ($10 million in 1990 dollars) is no excuse. The movie had some genuine assets to waste. Among them were some first-rate character actors, including Melinda Dillon, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty, and Darren McGavin. It had foreign and domestic locations, a marvelous old castle to stage the climax, and a legendary character; it was never gonna be spectacular, but any halfway fun screenplay and talented director could have made it an effective b-movie. Instead, every shot is either pedestrian or ugly, every set piece is unimaginative or addlepated, every plot twist is either a lame take on the four-color originals or a stupid innovation. And while many of the supporting players stand out, doing their best to elevate what must have seemed a sinking ship from day one, the leads are colorless and charisma-deprived.

There is an early sign of trouble in the first scenes, depicting the origin of the Red Skull, who is in this version not a crazed Nazi working for Hitler, but a crazed Italian who begins his career working for Mussolini. Now, this may have been tone-deafness to the mythos on the part of the filmmakers, but could also have been a requirement of international distribution; this writer contributed four novels to a book packager producing works based on Marvel characters and must report that, even then, using the word “Nazi” or mentioning Hitler in any book of the line was considered a no-no. It doesn’t matter. Only fans of the character as he appeared in the comics could have blown a gasket over the mere concept of an Italian Red Skull, had the story worked otherwise. But still, it’s a warning sign.

In any event, the Italian Red Skull begins life as an innocent kid who is, for reasons never satisfactorily explained, judged by the powers behind the Axis secret-soldier project to be the only person brilliant enough to merit the injection that will turn him into the desired ubermensch. So fascist soldiers break into his home, slaughter everybody, and drag him back to the castle where the brilliant Dr. Vaselli objects mightily to the super-soldier experiment being performed on a kid. So the last thing we hear is the kid screaming in agony as the potion works through his veins. None of this at all necessary, really, since nothing that ever happens in the film requires the Red Skull to be a paragon of physical fitness. True, he’s gonna trade blows with Captain America in an early scene, and win, but for all we see that’s no proof that he ever did anything but spend a lot of time in the gym.

We segue to the Rogers family home in California, where Steve is an adult survivor of childhood polio whose main infirmity is a limp that comes and goes, depending on how distracted Matt Salinger, son of author J.D., is in any particular scene.

Salinger, who couldn’t have picked a better role if his goal was to avoid the spotlight as much as his famous but reclusive Dad, is here a thespian of the Lee Majors / Gil Gerard school, except without their levels of conviction and presence. (He still has a career, and has worked steadily, but this film was as close as he ever came to stardom.) We get a scene where he’s headed off to the experiment that will turn him into Captain America, where he says goodbye to a family that seems to know exactly where he’s going and why. Way to keep the secret, Sparky.

In the closest this film comes to direct congruence with the blockbuster 2011 remake, the secret lab of Dr. Vaselli is hidden beneath a diner. (In the 2011 film, it’s an antiques shoppe.) The lady behind the counter grips a hidden handgun while exchanging pass codes with Steve’s escort, then lets the pair through. A bunch of military and government observers, including a pointedly referenced Senator Kirby (ha, ha), watch as Steve gets his injection. Then one of them turns out to be a Nazi assassin, killing Vaselli and ensuring that there will be no platoons of Captains America.

Freed of his limp, but shot by the bad guy, Steve goes to the hospital, where he is still enjoying bed rest when his military handlers show up to tell his doctor that he is needed on a mission of vital importance to stop the Red Skull’s missile aimed at Washington D.C. They actually say this. This seems excessive information to tell a mere sawbones, who would have worked on Steve anyway, but they say it in the hallway well within Steve’s hearing, thus motivating him to hop out of bed and say, I’m ready. So that’s all it took. Patton should have used that strategy while visiting the wounded in Sicily. He wouldn’t have had to slap anybody.

We are only a few minutes into the movie at this point and the dumbnesses are multiplying. The secret mission that only Captain America can perform turns out to be a raid on a Red Skull facility. Our guys know exactly where that facility is. There’s no evident reason why they can’t just, you know, bomb the shit out of it, since he has to parachute in anyway. Or if they need ground-level saboteurs, why they can’t parachute in a platoon or two with him. No. It must be this guy who they parachute in after what is carefully specified to be only 48 hours of training, and it has to be him alone. The Pentagon is certainly putting all its eggs in one basket.

A word about his Captain America costume. It’s seems to be a wet suit that somebody altered with a pair of scissors. The hasty handiwork is easiest to spot in close-ups of the eye holes, which are ragged and uneven. The A on his chest appears to be a completely different material, sewn on. This is, we’re told, a flameproof suit that is another of Dr. Vaselli’s one of a kind inventions. The late doctor was a lousy seamstress. It doesn’t matter much, as Cap will not be wearing it for long.

In any event, Cap invades the Red Skull’s stronghold and, after defeating a few henchmen just to demonstrate that he’s not a total loser, is himself defeated by the Skull (Paulin). The Red Skull as we see him here looks like the comic-book Red Skull for the only time in the film; get used to it, that mug is going away.

A word about super-villainous ranting. Any super-villain is going to spend some of his time ranting maniacally about how the hero doesn’t have a chance, bwah-ha-ha. That is part of the super-villain’s job. But in this movie, when the Red Skull looks at the defeated Captain America and says, I paraphrase here, “gee, you’re really not very good at this, are you? Are you really the best America could come up with?” it is easy to sympathize with him. Seriously. This Captain America lasts less than two minutes against the Red Skull. He’s not very good. The Skull almost seems disappointed. To his point of view, it likely seems silly to have gone to all this trouble getting a super-villain base, an ultimate weapon, a legion of followers, and a skull face, if this putz was all he was ever going to have to deal with at the end of it. You almost feel empathy for the chagrin he feels after all that wasted effort.

Anyway, the Skull ties Cap  to the rocket about to be fired at DC. There are a couple of views of Cap bound to the rocket; in one view, his famous round shield appears to be strapped there with him, and in another it’s clearly absent. It is certainly not being worn on his arm. Remember that. In a touch that the engineers at NASA must surely appreciate, the Red Skull  stands right next to his transatlantic rocket aimed at the White House, during the final fifteen second countdown; he doesn’t seem to be at all worried about being burned, let alone vaporized. Cap grabs him by the wrist, declaring that if he’s gonna go for a ride, the Skull is, too; whereupon the Skull whips out a knife and cuts off his own hand so he can escape. Why he doesn’t just cut off Captain America’s hand, which would accomplish the same result at considerably less pain to himself, is never satisfactorily explained. But hey, he’s a super-villain. He doesn’t have to make sense.

The rocket takes off. We cut to DC, where it’s still night despite the time zone difference between the East Coast of America and the night scenes taking place in Italy.  A little boy named Thomas Kimball, visiting DC with his family, declares that he’s gonna be President someday. Shushed, he sneaks out in his Pajamas to take a night photo of the White House, just as the rocket bearing Captain America heads for the big impact. He snaps a photo just before Cap, somehow still alive after a transatlantic journey exposed to high altitude, belatedly deflects the rocket. The photo the little urchin snaps is a clear picture of Cap, mask and all.

It will later be established that despite the rocket’s great speed, Cap will be able to remember the little boy who took his picture. At night. While the rocket went past. While he was busy trying to save the White House. That Cap never misses a trick, unless it’s like, you know, defeating the Red Skull.

We cannot stress this enough. This is a superhero who screws up his first and only mission.

And we’re still only a few minutes into the movie. The dumbness is that dense with detail. We haven’t even mentioned the film’s happy habit of showing us establishing shots of the White House with the helpful subtitle, Washington D.C. Thanks a lot. The movie does this so often it could power a drinking game. Another time it shows us a shot of the Vatican and informs us, Rome. Thank you.

So. The rocket overshoots the White House and crashes in Alaska. Whew, that was close. It’s either all or nothing with that rocket. No Mama Grizzlies peer out their windows and exclaim, “I can see the Red Skull’s ultimate weapon from my house!” Either way, the rocket doesn’t explode but it does put Cap on ice for a few decades. And so we get that hack movie’s traditional method of depicting the passage of time, a series of decades flying past (literally, the numbers, 1960, 1970, and so on), interspersed with newspaper headlines establishing major world events and key passages in the life of that little boy, Thomas Kimball, as he rises toward his election as President in 1992. (Yes, he’s Bill Clinton.) The newspapers, a local rag from Tommy’s home town of Springfield, demonstrate the shockingly low standard of journalism in his community; not only does one headline misspell his town as “Sprinfield”, sans g, but a closer look at the stories about our hometown boy reveal that several of them, possibly all of them, have lead grafs that establish them as actually stories about a local woman in trouble over a matter of child custody. I mean, this movie actually contrives to suck in ways that few other movies have even imagined.

Finally, we arrive at 1993, and President Clinton – er, Kimball, now played by Ronny Cox and working on an environmental initiative that one of his Generals, Darren McGavin, doesn’t like.  And we’re in the hell where the rest of this interminable movie takes place.

Captain America (1990): After The Ice

We are not even half an hour into the film now, so unless we want to be here all day we must accelerate and just try to hit some of the low points.

The Red Skull is now the leader of an evil international consortium that was directly responsible for, among other things, the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King. Having had some plastic surgery, he no longer looks like the Red Skull, though he needn’t have bothered, since everybody still calls him that, and he still has scars and whatnot all over his face. His current plan, prompted from complaints by by his ally General Kolchak, is to kidnap the President and implant a mind-control device that will keep him from proposing any more environmental initiatives. This plan, unlikely as it is, would go a long way toward explaining away our current President’s crappy record of capitulation to his opponents in the House and Senate.

Captain America is unearthed in Alaska. He pops up out of the ice with the shield already slung on one arm – a complete contradiction to where it was when he was frozen – and rushes out into the wilderness.

President Kimball remembers the man strapped to a rocket from his childhood – and a nigh-universal childhood experience it is – and decides to send somebody to investigate. Of course, in this world, the President of the United States has no resources useful for investigating strange events, no FBI, no Secret Service, no CIA, no NSA, so he calls a friend of his, Sam Kolawetz, a newspaper reporter played by Ned Beatty. The Red Skull, who also hears about it, scours his vast international conspiracy for useful assassins and sends his daughter. Everybody, it seems, operates on the same budget as the film itself.

Now, get this. Captain America, who was found in a frozen wasteland in Alaska, is next seen racing through more congenial climes in Northwest Canada, still wearing the same uniform. He’s jogged a few hundred miles.

Piloting attack helicopters and snowmobiles, the Red Skull’s assassins show up to kill him at what is conveniently the very same moment Ned Beatty comes tooling around the corner in his rent-a-car. These people have a wonderful knack of converging in an area the size of a Canadian province, within thirty seconds of one another. Cap is rescued by Kolawetz, who pulls up and shouts, “Get in!” – an act that itself establishes how lame this version of Cap is, since you’ve got to be  a lame superhero indeed to actually need to be rescued by Ned Beatty. In Superman’s case it required Valerie Perrine. But we’ll let that pass, and note an even greater manifestation of heroic inadequacy. To wit, Cap is rendered suspicious by Beatty’s Japanese tape recorder and German car, and thus to escape this guy who looks like Ned Beatty pretends that he’s car sick and asks his “captor” to pull over. Beatty obliges, at at which point Cap jumps behind the wheel and drives away.

Yes, this peak of human perfection requires subterfuge to escape from Ned Beatty. Batman wouldn’t have needed subterfuge to escape from Ned Beatty. Hell, Robin the Boy Wonder wouldn’t have needed subterfuge to escape from Ned Beatty. They would have just beaten up the guy. Hell, Stephen Hawking might not require subterfuge to escape from Ned Beatty. This film’s Captain America requires the lamest of all possible  subterfuges to escape from Ned Beatty. One can only imagine how he would have handled a fight with one of the comic book’s many martial-artist, let alone super-powered, sparring partners: pretend even harder?

It gets better. The action moves to California, where in the course of tracking down his old girlfriend Bernie – who’s now literally an old girlfriend, ha-ha – Cap discards his costume for what will be most of the remainder of the film. Until the climax, he will have most of his remaining dull adventures as Steve Rogers.

Assassins sent by the Red Skull kill Bernie, and Ned Beatty, who though left on foot in the Canadian Northwest has still managed to return to the US and track Steve down (thus proving, again, that this Cap is a superhero who can’t even stay ahead of Ned Beatty).

Steve sees a TV report that the President of the United States has been kidnapped from a European hotel after an attack by twenty heavily-armed men. Nobody comments on the unlikelihood of even twenty heavily-armed men being able to kidnap the President, or suggests that if a movie is going to require this scenario it should damn well show it to us. But Steve somehow knows, without any evidence whatsoever, that the gang that pulled off this miracle is the very same gang that has been sending assassins after him. He just knows. It’s like knowing one gang of swarthy guys was responsible for a major terrorist strike when in fact there are several gangs of swarthy guys who could have done it. This is how we got fooled into invading Iraq. But Cap, or rather Steve, knows the correct culprits for a certainty, just based on the news report.

There’s a major bit of stupidity involving the search for Dr. Vaselli’s diary, which is conveniently exactly where she left it when the top-secret government lab was shut down. One would have expected the Feds to clean up that kind of thing. But we move on.

Not really.

 Captain America (1990): The Big Action Climax

The action shifts to Europe. Steve and his old girlfriend’s daughter Sharon take a commercial flight, which is a truly impressive trick considering that Steve has been on ice for fifty years and has no passport or ID.

Sharon rents a car and they drive around for a bit. Steve needs to get away from Sharon to keep from dragging her into danger, so he pretends car sickness and asks her to pull over. It is exactly the same trick he pulled on Ned Beatty. This is in short a superhero who not once but twice escapes somebody by pretending that he has to vomit. It is, by the standards of this movie, his superpower: pretending that he has to vomit. (Only a churl would suggest that it is a trick many members of the audience are currently duplicating.) The gambit is even more ineffective this time than it was the first. Ned Beatty caught up with him a continent away. Sharon catches up with him after only a few blocks.

There is some more action, all of it embarrassing. There is a car chase that splatters the requisite fruit cart. Gene and Roger must be so proud.

But rather than elucidate everything awful that goes on, which includes among things the revelation that Steve Rogers is so ineffective an action hero that he cannot even ride a stolen bicycle without plunging it into the harbor, we’ll just skip to the climax. At this point there’s maybe fifteen minutes left in the film, and your titular superhero has not done anything effective since he became America’s first best hope against the Nazis. He has in fact been in civvies, blundering around Europe, for a third of the film.

Sharon has been captured by the Red Skull’s goons and locked in a cell directly below the President’s, though a convenient hole in the floor enables the two to see each other. (They still don’t have a chance for a substantive conversation, which is important.) With twenty minutes to go until the serum in his bloodstream enables the Red Skull’s minions to perform the further operation that can turn him into their mind-controlled puppet, the President of the United States makes his move. He has, you see, managed to snatch a vial of acid from a tabletop right under the Red Skull’s nose (which, being the Red Skull, is a nose he shouldn’t even have, but we move on).

Burning through the bars and breaking out, the Prez tells Sharon, who has just been locked in the cell directly underneath his, that he will bring back help, and splits. Cornered on a parapet, he leaps over the side rather than allow himself to be captured, and is improbably snatched to safety by Cap, who is climbing the outer wall. It is  a awfully convenient for Cap’s heroic reputation that the Prez picked that precise spot for his suicide attempt.

Now Cap and the Prez compare notes. Why, you’re that guy who was strapped to that rocket all those years ago! And that must mean you’re that little boy! Cap enthuses, “Gee whiz!” (He actually says Gee Whiz, which we cannot complain about, as it’s entirely in character for even the most soberly-written versions of Captain America.) The President further advises Cap that “They’ve got Sharon,” which is odd, since there doesn’t seem to be any way for him to know that Cap knows Sharon. But continuity is a bitch, right?

So it’s time for the big fight against the Red Skull and his minions, during which – this cannot be stressed enough – the President of the United States displays a lot more derring-do than the titular hero. The Prez runs around decking goons, among them that traitorous General Kolchak. He gets wounded by enemy fire and still rises to fight some more. He is one tough President of the United States, even by the standards of an era that would a few short years later give us Air Force One and Independence Day. It is indeed far more enjoyable to watch him than it is to watch Cap, as Ronny Cox gives the hopeless role his all and Matt Salinger just seems to wish he’d disappear into his mutilated wet suit.

The Skull repeats the point that he made forty some-odd years earlier: that this Captain America really isn’t all that much. And again, he absolutely has a point. Herr, excuse me, Signore Skull got himself all red-skulled and everything, and all he gets is a loser in a wetsuit.

Anyway, it finally comes down to Cap’s desperate last-minute attempt to prevent the Red Skull from setting off the nuclear bomb in the Grand Piano. Yes, the Red Skull has a nuclear bomb in his Grand Piano. This makes even less sense than the Grand Piano’s location, atop the castle’s wall. Yes, the Red Skull has a Grand Piano with a nuclear bomb in it, exposed to the elements, atop the Castle wall.  It’s a nicely maintained Grand Piano too, which looks like somebody’s been taking care of it, or more accurately that the prop people put it there sometime since the last storm. It may be the silliest place for a nuclear bomb in the history of film, if you don’t count the time one was inside Woody Allen. But fortunately, Cap is able to knock our lunatic Liberace over the edge to his death, an act that somehow also stops the bomb from ticking down to zero. There’s one colossal close-up of our hero’s face, which we’re evidently supposed to cheer, and the credits come up.

The makers of this Captain America were the then-prolific Golan-Globus company, who bragged about it beforehand but somehow recognized it as the turd it was, and put it on a shelf for two years, where it languished until a stealth release on home video. It is notorious among superhero fans, but remained virtually unknown to the general public, much like Matt Salinger. Cap fans who wanted a big cinematic experience for their hero would have to wait 21 years.

Now this is what it should look like.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Times have changed. Superheroes are no longer some niche genre, to be relegated to poverty-row budget films made by people so embarrassed by what they were doing that they worked up excuses to have their long-underwear characters perform most of the film’s action in civvies. They were indeed, to an unfortunate degree, the linchpin of the movie industry. Budgets are poured into them. The movies are frequently if anything too big, in that sometimes they don’t even slow down enough to provide the emotional moments.

In the context we’ve provided, there’s very little reason to go on an extreme length explaining just how much the current Captain America film gets right. We will note the closest thing it comes to being a straight remake, the scene involving a retail establishment that hides the entry to the secret lab. The scene still provides us with a sign, a countersign, and an agent behind the counter who keeps her hand on a weapon until she is sure that the visit is authorized.

We will also note that by setting almost all of the action in the 1940s and investing the proceedings with such an evocative sense of period, it accentuates just what makes this particular character unique in the first place. For instance, it gives us a Steve Rogers who clearly has a hero waiting inside him while he’s still a ninety-pound weakling. He is principled, courageous, and – as established with one hilarious scene involving a flagpole – a problem-solver. He is not just a charisma-deprived dufus, chosen at random. He is a remarkable person, interesting even before he is injected with the power juice.

There’s a terrific character arc involving his relationship to Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), here as in the comics the guy responsible for the serum who turns him into Captain America; Tommy Lee Jones performing a role he could perform in his sleep, but performing it well; the Howling Commandos, another set of Marvel heroes who here go unnamed but are very important to the action; dialogue that at one point puckishly establishes the events of Raiders Of The Lost Ark as backstory; an appearance by the original Human Torch for people who look really fast; well-staged action scenes (if a few too many of them); and a nice sinister performance by Hugo Weaving, who was able to project a personality beyond a static mask in V For Vendetta  and therefore has little difficulty performing while Red-Skulled. Fans of the Marvel franchise films are provided geeky joy by the film’s connections to Thor, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk,and finally next summer’s The Avengers. There’s a better costume, a fine period song by Alan Menken, and some smart humor.

All of which is well and good, and certainly worth praise. We would spend more time on that praise, but somehow suspect that it doesn’t need to be sold any more by us than it’s being sold by word of mouth right now. We just need to point out its most important attribute.

Whatever else it is…it sure ain’t the 1990 version.

And now the wife leaps through mortar fire, seizes the American flag, and charges the Red Skull’s goons.

*

Second commentary by Judi B. Castro

Captain America (1990). Directed by Albert Pyun. Written by Stephen Tolkin and Lawrence Block (yes, the famous mystery writer, Lawrence Block). From the character by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Starring Matt Salinger, Ronny Cox, Darren McGavin, Scott Paulin, and Ned Beatty. 97 minutes. 1/2 *.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley. From the character by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci. 124 minutes. ***1/2

Other Notable Film Versions, Not Covered By Us: Captain America (very racist 1944 serial, pitting a barely-recognizable version of Cap against Japanese saboteurs); 3 Dev Adam, copyright-flouting 1973 Turkish film teaming a version of Cap with a version of the Mexican masked wrestler Santo, against a strangely villainous version of Spider-Man (we are not making this up); two TV-movies starring Reb Brown, Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon (both 1979). The latter is the most notable directing credit of Ivan Nagy, who is really best known for his appearance in the documentary Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, which paints him as the unheralded sinister force behind the scenes of that big tabloid story.

What was I doing in 1990 that made me fondly remember this turkey of a movie?   Was I so starved for comic book action fare to believe I was seeing a good film?  I can’t blame my memories on either age or youth, so I must have been just plain stupid(or well into a weekend).

This Captain America is poorly written, poorly directed, poorly filmed and sin of all sins, barely reminiscent of Cap at all.

Now, admittedly, I never really put Cap into the superpowers category of heroes.  He was more of a steroidal footballer than a superman.  He never had amazing powers, but had kinda Buffy-like  amped up systems and healing.  And man, what a goody goody.  He and Supes could have an aww-shucks contest and call it a draw.  Is that a super soldier?  I do like the fish out of water Captain Steve Rogers much more than the packing firepower adapt to anything one that has been around lately.

Which brings me to the newest Captain America film.  (Note I say film here and not movie!)  This was a fun time.  Sure, a whole heap of time is spent introducing weak gawky Steve, but I felt it time well spent if a franchise is to be born out of these seeds.  And, the last third did feel a bit compacted, but not to the detriment of the story.

This new version utilizes technology without abusing it.  I didn’t see the 3-D version, but that didn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the shots.  So, when Cap throws his shield, yes, evildoers must yield!  The storyline was coherent and the few flaws I found were just a comic geek nitpicking the inevitable changes for the series.

All in all Captain America (2011)  a major good time!

Captain America (1990) a good party game, but a lousy film.


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.”


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!