December 21, 2007

Skeleton Frolics (1937)

In 1929, director Walt Disney and animator Ub Iwerks changed the face of animation with the release of the very first installment of their "Silly Symphonies" series, "The Skeleton Dance". Iwerks and Disney had been collaborating together since the early 20s, in Disney's "Laugh-O-Gram" cartoon series; however, their friendship suffered a tremendous blow when Iwerks accepted an offer by a competitor to leave Disney and start his own animation studio. That was the birth of Celebrity Productions, where Iwerks continued developing his style and technique (and where he created the character of Flip the Frog). While his work kept the same high quality, it wasn't really popular and by 1936 the studio was closed. Later that year, Iwerks was hired by Columbia Pictures, and Iwerks decided to return to his old skeletons for another dance, this time in color.

1937's "Skeleton Frolics" is essentially, a remake of the 1929 classic "The Skeleton Dance", the movie that borough him fame and fortune. Like that short film, it is set on an abandoned graveyard, where at midnight the creatures of the night come alive and begin to play. The dead rise from their coffins, ready for the show that's about to begin, as a group of skeletons has formed an orchestra, and begin to play a happy tune. Now, it's not easy to be a musician made of just bones, as some of the orchestra members have problems with their body parts, however, the band manages to put a good show and another group of skeletons begin to dance. A lovely couple of them faces the same problems that troubled the orchestra: it's hard to dance with loose body parts. Everything ends at dawn, and just when the sun is about to rise again, the skeletons run towards their graves.

Directed and animated by Ub Iwerks himself, "Skeleton Frolics" follows faithfully the pattern set by "The Skeleton Dance" years before, although with a crucial difference: Iwerks did the whole film in Technicolor. The bright tonalities allowed Iwerks to create a more visually appealing film, and also to use the many new techniques he had been practicing since leaving Disney, creating even better effects of depth and dynamism than those he conceived before. It is certainly a more experimental film than "The Skeleton Dance", although sadly, this doesn't mean it's necessarily a better film. For starters, the film is practically identical to the one he did with Disney, with the only differences being the music (more on that later) and the color effects. It looks beautiful, no doubt about it, but it definitely feels kind of unoriginal after all.

However, it is not the unoriginality of the concept what truly hurts the film (after all, Iwerks executes it in a wonderful way), but the fact that the musical melody created by Joe DeNat for the film is pretty uninteresting and lacks the charming elegance and whimsical fun of the one done by Carl W. Stalling for "The Skeleton Dance". In other words, while DeNat's tune is effective and appropriate for the theme, it's easy to forget about it rapidly while Stalling's song has a unique personality that makes it unforgettable. Being a musical film, this is of high importance, and so the mediocrity of the music brings down Iwerk's flawless work of animation. Personally, I think that with a better musical accompaniment, "Skeleton Frolics" would be remembered as fondly as "The Skeleton Dance despite not being as groundbreaking, as it's still a fun film to watch.

It's kind of sad that most of the work Iwerks did after leaving Disney is now forgotten due to his poor success, however, it must be said that if Iwerks lacked the popularity of Disney or Fleischer (Disney's main rival), he did not lack the quality of those companies' films. It was probably just a case of bad luck what made the man who gave life to Disney's mouse for the first time to face failure out of Disney. Despite its shortcomings, "Skeleton Frolics" is a very funny and visually breathtaking film, that while not exactly the most original and fresh film (one just can't help but thinking of "The Skeleton Dance" while watching it), it definitely reminds us that Iwerk's skeletons are still here to haunt us, and inspire us.


Buy "Skeleton Frolics" (1937)

December 18, 2007

The Golden Compass (2007)

Ever since first published in 1995, "Northern Lights", the first novel in the "His Dark Materials" series by British writer Philip Pullman, became a very popular fantasy novel, not only among young readers, but also among the adult population, earning several prestigious literary awards around the world. However, the "His Dark Materials" series of books also became the subject of controversy among fundamentalist Christians, who see in the book an attack to their beliefs, and a propagandistic tool for atheism. Controversies aside, the popularity of the "His Dark Materials" series piqued the interest of New Line Cinema after the success of "The Lord of the Rings" in 2002, and now, 5 years later, a film adaptation of the first book in the series is now a reality, under the title of "The Golden Compass" (as it's known in America) and director Chris Weitz at the helm.

"The Golden Compass" is the story of Lyra Belaqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a young girl living at the University of Oxford, in a parallel universe to our own, similar but different, where life is ruled by the omnipresent organization known as the Magisterium, and the soul resides outside the body in the form of an animal called a "dæmon". One day, she hears her uncle Lord Asriel's (Daniel Craig) announcement to the College that he has discovered the existence of parallel worlds. This investigation goes against the Magisterium dogma, and immediately he is considered an heretic. Lord Asriel decides to travel to the north pole to continue his experiments, but when Lyra's best friend Roger (Ben Walker) is kidnapped by the mysterious Gobblers, she decides to go to the north too, beginning an adventure that will take her to meet armored bears, and discover a powerful secret.

Adapted to the screen by director Chris Weitz himself, "The Golden Compass" is essentially, an introduction to the universe of "His Dark Materials" and the beginning of Lyra's heroic journey. However, fans of the book should not expect a direct adaptation of the novel, as Weitz took several noticeable liberties with the plot, some done in order to make the story cinematic, some done with the idea of toning down the religious allusions that Pullman uses in his novel. While with this changes Weitz certainly sacrificed substantial parts of the story, he still manages to make an interesting and intriguing plot, that certainly makes one to know more about this parallel world and its ultimately fate. As the focus is completely on Lyra, there isn't a lot of character development for most of the supporting characters, and that's something that brings the film down a bit.

As he is better known for his work in comedies ("American Pie" and "About a Boy" for example), it was hard to think of Chris Weitz as a director of Pullman's epic fantasy, however, in this aspect his work truly shines. While his script isn't really up to the expectations, his visual design and overall vision for the movie is simply flawless. With an excellent work of cinematography (by Henry Braham) and art design, Weitz makes Pullman's work come to life in a grandiose fashion, and gives every scene a very special, almost ethereal touch. The work done by the special effects team is also remarkable, specially in the creation of the armored polar bears and naturally, the Dæmons themselves. Another element that's worth to point out is Weitz' work with his cast, as he manages to bring out excellent performances that work nicely despite his weak screenplay.

And it is the work done by the cast what practically rescues "The Golden Compass" from being just another fantasy film and bring hope that maybe the next film (if there's one) may be better. Young Dakota Blue Richards is certainly a brilliant discovery, as she brings to her role a charming rebellious attitude that works perfectly with her clever and witty character. In this her first work she shows a lot of promise and hopefully she'll realize her potential in her following films. The rest of the cast is excellent, despite the lack of development of their characters. Nicole Kidman is perfect as the cold and enigmatic Mrs. Coulter, and Sam Elliott shines as the charming Aeronaut Lee Scresby. As the voice of Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear, Ian McKellen is perfect, giving his character a fully developed personality that makes him stand out.

Now, while the cast's performances are excellent and Weitz' directing is honestly impressive, what definitely brings the film down is the way Weitz fleshed out his adaptation. As written above, Weitz took a lot of liberties with the story, in an attempt to make the complexities of the plot a bit easier to get by the mainstream audiences, but by doing this he turned Pullman's original epic into a fairly typical fantasy adventure. I'm not saying that he betrayed the novel's plot, but the way Weitz has developed the story makes clichéd what otherwise would be fresh and original, as Weitz transforms the novel's sequence of events into one that follows the pattern of classic series of films (like "Star Wars"). To make things worse, several of the changes done, while probably unnoticeable for most people, will definitely be disliked by fans of Pullman's book.

This last thing is probably what will damage the film more, as in the it's the target audience whom ultimately will give the film a good or bad word of mouth. However, I would still recommend "The Golden Compass", as despite the liberties taken with the source novel, it's still an entertaining film that keeps that sense of adventure the novel has. Personally, I would like to see what Weitz has prepared for the second installment, but his disregard for the fans may make a second part inviable. Despite it's shortcomings, "The Golden Compass" it's still a very good movie, although probably not the fantasy film of the year.


Buy "The Golden Compass" (2007)

December 10, 2007

The Skeleton Dance (1929)

It was in 1928 when sound entered the realm of motion pictures and with it a new age arrived to the young medium and the conventions of an art form were changed forever. This new technology, that allowed movies to be able to have their own musical score independent of the theater's orchestra, entered the mind of a young film director and animator named Walt Disney, who had been producing short animated films with the help of the brilliant cartoonist Ub Iwerks. Disney decided to take advantage of the novelty of sound and create a series of short musical animations to distribute along their Mickey Mouse cartoons (which also began to be produced with sound), in which they would be able to experiment with new techniques, characters and ideas. He named the series, "Silly Symphonies", and the very first one of them, 1929's "The Skeleton Dance", would revolutionize animation forever.

In "The Skeleton Dance", the action is set on an abandoned graveyard during a windy night under the full moon. It is the perfect night for the creatures of the night, and so the bats fly from the belfry, the spiders go out for a walk, and an owl watches scared the action that's about to begin: the dead rise from their graves, and they are ready to dance. A skeleton comes out first, scaring a couple of cats who were fighting, and then he calls his friends, other skeletons who are willing to play some music and celebrate. Using their bones as musical instruments, the Skeletons play a haunting tune, dance to the music, and even dance Ring Around the Rosie, having fun until the moon hides and the new day begins, because as soon as the rooster appears to announce that it's morning, the Skeletons must return to their graves, and prepare themselves for the next time.

Created by Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, "The Skeleton Dance" is, as its tag-line says, a talking picture novelty in which audiences where able to witness a good song accompanied by an animated film, pretty much similar to what we now know as a musical video. What makes the movie amazing is the way it perfectly mixes the horror atmosphere of its setting with the whimsical comedy that made Walt Disney Productions' short films so popular with the audiences. Skulls, bats, cats and spiders make an apparition in the movie, in what could be the perfect scenario for a horror film, but this time the skeletons only want to have fun. Carl W. Stalling, composer of the film's song (and another influential figure in the history of animation), creates in "The Skeleton Dance" one of the best Disney tunes ever, perfectly putting in his music that mix of horror and humor that the short film embodies.

Ub Iwerks' art shines through the film, and Disney makes sure to take the most advantage of his friend's talent. As written above, they saw the "Silly Symphonies" as a way to experiment, and "The Skeleton Dance" showcases Iwerks and his team making a highly dynamic film, as well as creating pretty impressive sequences where perspective is put to great use. It's also very imaginative the many things they do with their skeletons, specially when they made them use the things found in the cemetery as musical instruments (including cats, and later, their own bones). The choreography of the Skeleton dance is very funny, and one gets the feeling that this group of young animators were truly having fun when making this little film. In many ways, "The Skeleton Dance" was way ahead of its time, and includes elements that years later would be part of the horror genre.

Among Disney's early films, "The Skeleton Dance" is one of enormous importance, as thanks to its big success Disney was able to produce more cartoons of his established characters. It also produced many imitators (WB's "Merry Melodies" and MGM's "Happy Harmonies" being the best of them) and a completely new style of short animations. Sadly, the friendship between Disney and Iwerks would be broken and Iwerks abandoned Disney in 1930 to open his own studio and later to work at Columbia Pictures (where in 1937 he remade "The Skeleton Dance" in color, under the name of "Skeleton Frolics"). While he never found the same success he had with Disney, Ub Iwerks' work proved to be among the most influential in the history of animation, becoming the teacher of other masters like Chuck Jones, and even now, animators today study the magic of Ub Iwerks and his dancing skeletons.


Buy "The Skeleton Dance (1929) and more of Disney's early shorts

December 09, 2007

Frankenstein (1910)

By 1910, motion pictures already had 30 years of continuous improvement since the time of its invention. What started as simple shootings of common events in human life had turned into a brand new way of storytelling thanks to the efforts of early pioneers like Georges Méliès, Edwin S. Porter and Ferdinand Zecca. However, it was a new batch of pioneers who finally completed the creation of the new art, and gave birth to cinema as we know it. Among this new group of filmmakers, the name of J. Searle Dawley is probably not as well known as D.W. Griffith or Thomas H. Ince, however, Dawley was probably the first professional director in the history of cinema, as given his experience in theater, was hired by Edwin S. Porter specifically to direct films. And in this position, he would be the first one to bring to screen the horrors of Mary Shelley's immortal novel: "Frankenstein".

In this first version of the novel, Victor Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) is a young student of medicine, who moves to college in order to continue his research. He is looking for the ultimate secret of life and death, and has as a goal the creation of the most perfect human being the world has ever seen. After months of constant research, he thinks he has discovered the secret and sets his final experiment in motion. With a mix of science, alchemy and black magic, Frankenstein creates his creature, but to his surprise, the creation is far from the perfect being he had hoped to make, as his creature (Charles Ogle), is a deformed monster who disgusts and horrifies the young scientist. Frankenstein decides to abandon his creation and return home hoping to rebuild his life, however, the creature has followed him, and is now envious of Frankenstein's bride (Mary Fuller).

Adapted to the screen by J. Searle Dawley himself, the story in this adaptation is very simple, although considering its short runtime (aproximately 16 minutes), it captures fairly the novel's core plot. Dawley's version of the novel introduces a notable element of psychology, as in this film the monster is literally the living physical representation of the evil in Frankenstein's soul. This original take on the novel's plot is really interesting as it not only deviates from the novel but is also completely different than the better known version done by James Whale for Universal in the 30s. While of course the movie lacks the more complex themes of the original story, this interesting addition certainly makes up for it and makes the film to stand out among other early horrors.

Being a professional of theater, it was natural that Dawley's films carried that feeling of being filmed plays; however, one has to praise the fairly original visual composition of the movie, and of course, the very inventive use he gave to the many tricks and special effects of his time. Particularly notable is the scene when Frankenstein creates his creature, as even today, almost 100 years after its shooting, remains an amazing and very suspenseful moment of silent cinema. Of course, given his background it is his work with the cast what separates Dawley's work from other pioneers. Certainly what he lacked in cinematic vision, he compensated for with a good domain of his cast, pulling off great performances from his actors.

While Augustus Phillips is perhaps a bit over the top in his role, he is quite good considering it was his debut on film, and makes a nice portrait of the Doctor as a young man. The mysterious Mary Fuller (who would leave the industry in 1917 at the peak of her fame) plays Frankenstein's bride, in one of her earliest works as an actress, and Charles Ogle completes the cast as the monster. While certainly not a Boris Karloff, Charles Ogle's performance as the Creature is extremely good, and his talent shines in many memorable scenes. Story says he also made his own make-up, as probably he had performed the Monster before on theater during the early years of his career. Ogle's performance is certainly the film's highlight, and through his interpretation one can see why this role is one of the finest horror characters ever written.

The first version of "Frankenstein" is not only valuable for its enormous historical importance, but also for its artistic qualities as a version of the novel. While many may disregard it due to it's unimaginative visual quality and its stagy style, it is one of the films that show the progression of cinema as a narrative art form. Despite its short runtime, it is a very entertaining movie that still manages to be impressive after all these years. Decades before Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff, Charles Ogle became a monster and brought the immortal classic to life with terrifying power. Fans of the novel and horror fans in general, this is a must-see.


December 07, 2007

Stardust (2007)

In the late 80s, a new generation of writers changed the American comic book industry forever with the complex mature-themed nature of their stories, effectively transforming what was considered an unsophisticated literary genre into a well respected art form. Among that group of storytellers was Neil Gaiman, a young British writer who decided to try his luck at comic books convinced by his friend, Alan Moore (writer of the classic graphic novel "Watchmen"). After landing a job at DC comics, Gaiman started the series that would make him famous, "The Sandman", the comic book where his taste for fantasy and great imagination found no limits. Years later Gaiman returned to prose, and so he decided to make a fantasy novel in the style of classic English fantasy, the one that used to be done before the days of Tolkien and Lewis' high fantasy. And the result was "Stardust".

"Stardust" is the story of Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox), a humble young man hopelessly in love with the most beautiful girl in his town, Victoria (Sienna Miller). To his misfortune, she has accepted a marriage proposal by Humphrey (Henry Cavill), so he decides to give her an ultimate proof of his love: a star has fallen from the sky, so he tells Victoria that he'll bring it to her, even if that means to cross the legendary wall that separates their town from the mysterious forest. What Tristan doesn't know, is that the wall exists to separate his world from the magical realm of Stormhold, and that he is not the only one looking for the star, as a powerful witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) wants it to be young again, and two princes (Mark Strong and Jason Flemyng) need it to claim the throne of Stormhold. However, the biggest surprise will be the star's identity.

Screenwriter Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn make a nice adaptation of Gaiman's novel that keeps the story's core points, although they toned down the darkness of the novel quite a bit. This is not really a bad thing, as in the process, Goldman and Vaughn remained faithful to the novel's spirit and the result is a movie that joyfully plays with witty comedy, fantasy and romance, and yet it's still completely in tone with the fantasy stories that inspired Gaiman's book. In essence, "Stardust" is what could be called "a fairy tale for grown-ups", as it's fantasy is whimsical, clever and very imaginative, but with a greater emphasis on the characters and their development than in any epic scale adventure. And this is where "Stardust" has its strongest point: the character development is remarkably well done, and even those characters with very short screen time are unforgettable.

While "Stardust" is a very different (and more ambitious) film to his previous movie, 2004's "Layer Cake", director Matthew Vaughn manages to make it work by concentrating in the story and letting everything else grow from there. Since comedy and romance are now the main ingredients of the film, Vaughn focuses the film on his characters, specially in the relationship the main couple. Still, while "Stardust" lacks the epic scope of high fantasy films, Vaughn manages to make his story a very beautiful looking one, giving life to the kingdom of Stormhold with a beautiful Victorian style and good care for details. Sadly, a fantasy film like "Stardust" fantasy films tends to relay a lot on special effects, and budgetary reasons prevented Vaughn from making truly stunning visuals, however, the ones that appear are good enough to make Stormhold come to life.

As written above, "Stardust" is a fantasy movie where the characters have more importance than the story, so a good cast is needed to make it work. Well, the movie is benefited by a great supporting cast that includes Ricky Gervais, Peter O'Toole, a truly unforgettable Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in what is definitely her great return to mainstream movies. Sadly, the main couple, Charlie Cox and Claire Danes, get easily overshadowed by the supporting cast's performances, specially Cox, whom despite having great natural charm still feels a bit weak in the lead role. Danes fares a bit better, as there are scenes that truly allow her to shine in her character. By the way, I must say that while his role is kind of limited, Mark Strong is excellent as prince Septimus, and delivers some of the best swashbuckling scenes of the last times.

Being an accomplished mix of fantasy, romance and comedy in the classic style of fairy tales, "Stardust"'s worst enemy may be it's very consciously attempt to pay homage to that kind of fantasy tales. In a time where adaptations of high fantasy books like "The Lord of the Rings" or "The Chronicles of Narnia" are popular, it would be easy to expect "Stardust" to follow that pattern, but it doesn't and it may turn off people expecting epic battles instead of romantic swashbuckling. If there's a recent movie that bears any similitude to this film, that one would be "The Princess Bride" (also based on a novel), although Reiner's film is certainly grounded even more on the comedy genre. There are details in the lead actors' performances, and the already mentioned troubles in some visual effects, but these are minor quibbles that don't really hurt the film.

While not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, "Stardust" is still one of the best fantasy films of the last years, and most definitely a worthy adaptation of Gaiman's novel. Whimsical and lighthearted but also witty and clever at the same time, "Stardust" proves that not every fantasy film must be about saving the world from an evil dark lord, and that romantic comedies must not be unnecessarily sappy affairs. This excellent tale of fantasy and romance is great for fans of both genres. Comparisons to "The Princess Bride" can't be avoided, but this film is almost as good as that fantasy classic.


Buy "Stardust" (2007)

December 02, 2007

Beowulf (2007)

Ever since the year of 1995 saw the release of Pixar's "Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature film, a whole new way of creating animated movies was born, as while computers were already used in traditionally animated films, now they could be used to create animated feature length films. And just like traditional animation has developed several techniques (like Rotoscoping), 3D animation also developed its own styles, like photorealism, which attempts to mimic real life employing techniques such as motion capture. Director Robert Zemeckis has been working with this style for a while, with his first animated film being 2004's "The Polar Express", which showed the potential of motion capture. His next animated feature was also based on the motion capture technique, but this time he used it to recreate England's oldest epic narration: the Norse legend of "Beowulf".

Following closely the epic poem, the movie chronicles the story of how a monster named Grendel (Crispin Glover) terrorized the famous mead hall Heorot, slaughtering the people of danish King Hrothgar (Anthony Hokins) and bringing death to his lands. Hearing of the problems at Heorot, a Geatish hero named Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives to Hrothgar's mead hall with his men, claiming to be the world's greatest hero and the only one able to kill the monster. King Hrothgar decides to give Beowulf and his men a chance to prove their courage and allows them to battle Grendel, however, this fight will prove to be decisive in Beowulf's life, as not only he'll face a monster beyond his imagination, he'll also be forced to confront his inner demons when he meets Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie), and to make things worse, he'll fall in love with the King's beautiful wife, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn).

As written above, "Beowulf" follows the Old English poem quite faithfully, in the sense that it covers all the major battles and challenges that Beowulf faced. However, writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary use the poem's outline to add a back-story that ties all the poem's events, and at the same time explores the theme of the difference between man and myth in heroic tales. This adds an interesting complexity to the poem's characters (which are more archetypes than real persons), as while we do watch Beowulf as the mythic heroic warrior the poem talks about, we also see him as man whose greatest wish is to be remembered as a hero, and often falls in the temptation of exaggerating his feats. It's a take that many purists of the poem may dislike, but personally I found the script to be the strongest part of the film. The touch of sly humor is also another welcomed surprise in the screenplay.

Director Robert Zemeckis makes a good job at making the Norse legend come to life again in animated form, recreating in a very detailed way the atmosphere of myth and magic that the epic tale conveys. While Gaiman and Avery's script takes some liberties with the original story, Zemeckis makes sure to keep that sense of thrill and adventure that has made "Beowulf" to be a captivating story for over a thousand years. The technology employed in the film is definitely a big improvement over the work done in "The Polar Express", and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to call "Beowulf" the best motion capture film ever done so far, however, Zemeckis' decision to use an extreme photorealism in the design (to the point that some actors look exactly as their real counterparts) isn't really as fortunate, as the closer the characters look to real life, the easier it gets to to spot flaws in them.

Now, this is not really a problem of the cast, as while they aren't all excellent, for the most part they all make an efficient job in their roles. As the heroic and proud Beowulf, Ray Winstone is very good and makes a very human portrait of the mythic warrior, taking advantage of the fact that the script has humanized his character a bit. As his best friend Wiglaf, Brendan Gleeson shines despite the small size of his role, and he gets some of the best lines in the film. Anthony Hopkins is good as Hrothgar, but nothing really surprising, and the same could be said of Robin Wright Penn as Wealthow. However, Crispin Glover steals the show as Grendel, as he manages to deliver a poignant performance behind the his computer generated facade. Angelina Jolie is also very good in her role, although her accent wasn't really the most appropriate.

With a very good cast, the best technology for computer animation and on top of that a solid script, one would think that "Beowulf" could be a flawless example of animated art, but sadly, something just doesn't work completely. The problem, in my opinion, is that once again Zemeckis seems to be too enamored of his technology, and in his choice of making an extremely realist animated version, he has put the animation's flaws on display to everyone. What I mean is that this search for realism brings to the spotlight a major problem: the quality of the animation doesn't look constant, as while some characters do look amazingly like the actors that play them (Grendel's mother being the most notorious), others look extremely fake (Wiglaf and Hrothgar for example), so the contrast between them is glaringly obvious, and that's really bad.

And this leads to another problem, or more precisely, a question: if Zemeckis wanted such an extreme photorealism in his film, why not use real actors to do it? But despite this, "Beowulf" is not only an interesting experiment, if one gets over the idea that it's an animated film, one will find that behind the flashy graphics there's a powerful story, a story that has been thrilling our imagination for centuries. And still can do that and more.


Buy "Beowulf" (2007)

November 21, 2007

The Bat (1926)

While less remembered nowadays than Agatha Christie, American writer Mary Roberts Rinehart was as influential in the genre of crime fiction as her British colleague, as she originated many of the core elements of murder mystery stories in her writing (the phrase "The butler did it", comes from her work). In 1917 she joined popular playwright Avery Hopwood in order to write "The Bat", a stage adaptation of her novel, "The Circular Staircase", but instead of making a straight version of the novel, they added new twists and turns to the plot, including the presence of a masked criminal named "The Bat", who would make the mystery a bit more complex for Reinhart's popular character, Miss Cornelia Van Gorder. The play was a huge hit, and it fascinated director Roland West, an avid fan of mystery plays who six years later would adapt it to film.

In the film, Miss Cornelia Van Gorder (Emily Fitzroy) and her niece Dale (Jewel Carmen) rent an old mansion that belongs to the wealthy owner of a bank. However, their tranquility is disturbed when they discover that the bank has been robbed by the master thief known as The Bat (due to his elaborate costume), the owner is now dead, and he left the rest of his fortune in cash hidden in the mansion they are renting. Now Van Gorder and her niece will be the new victims of The Bat, who wants to get the full loot and will do whatever it's necessary to get them out of the house, alive or dead. To make things worse, Dale's fiancée Brooks (Jack Pickford), a clerk at the robbed bank, is the main suspect, so he arrives to the mansion hoping to hide for a while. Fortunately, Detective Anderson (Eddie Gribbon) also arrives to help the women, but the Bat has proved to be an extraordinary foe.

Adapted by director Roland West with the aid of Julien Josephson, "The Bat" follows the play in a relatively faithful way, although since West has no way to represent the play's dialogs on film, he decides to put more emphasis on the horror elements and tell the story in a more visually rich fashion. This is specially notorious in the "first act", where West gives more insight about the Bat's methods by showing him using his skills to commit a robbery early on the film. Still, the movie version keeps those touches that made the source so different to other mystery plays, specially that touch of dark detective fiction that predates the films noir of the following the decades. As usual in this kind of plays, there's also a touch of light comedy (in the shape of the classic cowardly character) that serves to break the suspense and add some fun every now and then.

As an early adaptation of a murder mystery play (like West's other horror film, "The Monster"), "The Bat" is a very influential movie in the horror genre because of its use of the old dark house setting, however, visually it is a very memorable film too. The most striking features of "The Bat" are without a doubt William Cameron Menzies's work as set designer and the cinematography by Arthur Edeson (assisted by a young Gregg Toland, in his first real job), which under West's direction result in a wonderful expressionist nightmare. To create his atmospheric game of light and shadows, West decided to shot the film mostly at night, which is why "The Bat" has that dark stylish look that feels surreal and otherworldly. Interestingly, West's directing of actors is very restrained, as if he intended to tell the story with the cinematography instead of his cast.

While in the novel the character of Miss Cornelia Van Gorder played a more prominent role, here it's Dale and her fiancée Brooks whom are in the spotlight. As Brooks, Jack Pickford (Mary Pickford's scandalous brother) is effective, although nothing really amazing; the same could be said of Jewel Carmen (West's wife at the time), who plays Dale. They aren't bad, but not exactly noteworthy. Quite the contrary is Louise Fazenda, who steals the show as the cowardly maid Lizzie and adds a lot of charm to the film thanks to her over-the-top slapstick comedy. As the witty Miss Cornelia Van Gorder, Emily Fitzroy is pretty good, and certainly embodies the character with a strong presence. Finally, Eddie Gribbon is another of the cast members who give a great performance, possibly the best in the film after Fazenda's.

Despite it's many memorable moments, in the end "The Bat" as a film is damaged badly by its own origin as a play: on stage actors have words, but West can't have that element on film. While West certainly did his best to tell the story without words (and the first act is itself a masterpiece of silent storytelling), the film does feel very stagy, specially in the scenes directly lifted from the play, which result in a film of irregular pace, with some highly dynamic scenes and others that are slow and kind of dull. In my personal opinion, "The Bat" would had been better if West had done a less faithful adaptation, and instead had followed the path he was walking in the first act, which was highly original. For example, Paul Leni's adaptation of "The Cat and the Canary" (another murder mystery play) done the following year takes what West started here to higher levels.

In the end "The Bat" is a highly enjoyable film that, while not really a masterpiece, it is of great interest due to its beautiful cinematography, set design and ultimately charming plot. West would remake this film 4 years later as "The Bat Whispers", now with sound and what he lacked here. And yes, it would be that 1930 horror film the one that would inspire comic book artist Bob Kane to create his very own Batman. A flawed but still good horror movie.


Buy "The Bat" (1926)

November 14, 2007

The Ghost Walks (1934)

One of the genres that flourished during the decade of the 30s was the variation of crime fiction known as "the murder mystery", as the addition of sound to films helped to make a more faithful translation to film of what the audiences experienced in the original plays. And since horror films were very popular in those years, by enhancing the horror elements of the plots the murder mystery films experienced a popularity almost equal to what it enjoyed in the previous decade (in which the first movies of the genre were produced). Aspiring playwright Charles Belden saw in this renewed interest in murder mysteries a chance to make a name for himself, after Warner Bros. picked his three-act play, "The Wax Works", to create the 1933 horror film, "Mystery of the Wax Museum". Belden joined independent filmmaker Frank R. Strayer to keep making films, and "The Ghost Walks" was one of his best.

In "The Ghost Walks", John Miljan plays Prescott Ames, a young playwright who wants to impress a famous Broadway producer named Herman Wood (Richard Carle) with his new play. Ames takes Wood and his assistant Homer (Johnny Arthur) to his country house for a reading of his play, but his car ends up stuck in the mud during a terrible storm. The three men ask for refugee in an old Mansion which happens to be property of one of Ames' old acquaintances. Inside the house, Wood and Homer witnesses the strange relationship between Ames and the house owners, however, this is all a plan conceived to impress Wood: everyone in the house is an actor playing a role in his murder mystery. Unfortunately, the murder committed is done for real, and while Wood and Homer think it's all fake (after discovering Ames' original plan), the cast knows that someone inside the house is a real murderer.

As expected, Charles Belden's screenplay for "The Ghost Walks" features the classic elements of the murder mystery stories of its time, as we have the stormy night at an old dark house as setting, the obligatory group of suspects, and the touch of comedy. However, what's interesting here is how Belden makes the film a real spoof on the genre with the many twists he puts in his story to play with the clichés of murder mystery plays. The dialogs are excellent, full of wit and lighthearted charm, and while the plot certainly loses a lot of steam by the end (it follows the murder mystery routine anyways), it never fails to be interesting and entertaining thanks to its smart twists and specially its quirky characters. Interestingly, there's an obvious gay subtext that while stereotypical, it's never denigrating and it's genuinely funny at times.

By 1934 director Frank R. Strayer was already an experienced craftsman in the Poverty row side of the film industry, but his partnership with writer Charles Belden would give him a couple of his most interesting movies, and "The Ghost Walks" was one of them. While obviously done on a shoestring budget and the typical production values of independent films of its time, Strayer manages to take advantage of his set and makes an atmospheric movie that fits nicely the mood and tone of the story. The pacing is a little too slow at times, but Strayer knew that the power of his film was on Belden's script and makes the most of it, letting his cast to make the most of their characters with excellent results. Certainly the execution is a bit typical and unoriginal, but Strayer makes an effective albeit restrained work in this film.

As written above, the screenplay is filled with great lines that make the quirky characters shine, and fortunately, most of the cast play with this to their advantage. Veteran character actor Richard Carle is remarkably funny as cranky producer Herman Wood, adding a lot of charm to his character, specially in his scenes with Johnny Arthur, who plays the flamboyant secretary Homer. Arthur is the one who gets the most best scenes, and he gives and hilarious performance as the cowardly yet witty assistant. John Miljan is just effective as Presocott Ames, nothing amazing, but nothing really bad, and the same could be said about June Collyer as Gloria Shaw (the obligatory love interest), whom is just fine. However, Donald Kirke is really enjoyable as the malicious Terry Shaw, and it's a shame he didn't get more screen time.

As usual with Frank R. Strayer films, the low budget hurts the film badly, as while Strayer makes the best he can, the film still feels kind of plain at times. However, the main problem is problem the very slow pace it has, as even when the film is filled with sparkly moments of witty dialogs, it moves at a pace so slow that can become boring and tedious for moments. It also must be said that while effective in their roles, Miljan and Collyer are pretty dull and average when compared to Arthur and Carle, and one wishes the movie had been more focused on the comedic pair they make than on the main couple. Finally, as written above the ending is kind of weak and not up to the high standard of the first and middle parts, although credit must go to Belden for keeping creative plot twists appearing until the very end.

One could say that Charles Belden is an unsung hero of the murder mystery genre, as among the many horror and mystery films that came out the B movie studios nicknamed as "the Poverty Row", "The Ghost Walks" is easily among the best (alongisde Strayer's previous film, "The Vampire Bat") despite its shortcomings. And even when it's definitely not a masterpiece of the genre, it's a nice way to spend a night enjoying the way it pokes fun at its own origin as a murder mystery play. A very recommended film if you like the genre.


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November 12, 2007

Ghost Rider (2007)

Ever since the release of Bryan Singer's "X-Men", movie based on Marvel Comics' popular superhero team, the first decade of the 2000s saw a revival of films based on the adventures of comic book heroes even bigger to what Donner's "Superman" did in the late 70s, and Burton's "Batman" in the late 80s. After "X-Men" came "Spider-Man", "The Hulk" and many other classic names of the main comic book pantheons (even the Batman franchise got a reboot) as modern technology made possible what in the past years was impossible: to represent the fantastic abilities of the characters in a somewhat realistic way. After more than 6 six years of troubled development (it was one of the first to be announced), the supernatural hero created in the 70s by Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog, "Ghost Rider", has now joined the ranks of superheroes with a movie adaptation.

The movie is the story of Johnny Blaze (Matt Long), the son of a stunt motorcycle rider (Brett Cullen) who one day discovers that his father is dying of cancer. On that day the demon Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) appears to him, and offers Johnny the chance to save his father if he is willing to give him his soul. Blaze sings the contract and his father gets cured, but later gets killed on a motorcycle accident, making Johnny's soul the Devil's property, and he'll find a use for him someday. Many years later, Johnny (Nicolas Cage) is now a famous stunt driver, and is in this way where he gets reunited to the girlfriend he abandoned as a teenager, Roxanne (Eva Mendes). However, the Devil also returns to Johnny's life and forces him to become his warrior, the Ghost Rider, as he needs him to kill his son Blackheart (Wes Bentley), who plans to overpower him.

Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson (who previously worked on "Daredevil"), "Ghost Rider" is essentially, a movie to spent the time and have some fun. This is not a movie that explores the complexities of its hero, but one that seems to celebrate the fun and entertainment that comic book superheroes represent. Unlike what one would expect of a title like "Ghost Rider" (and its themes of demons and ghosts), Johnson makes a story that owes more to adventure comic books and the Western serials of old than to the Faust myth, as he adds a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor that lightens up things a lot. Johnson truly captures the feeling of a comic book in his story, but sadly it also carries the problems that this kind of stories have, like for example a very shallow characterization, several underdeveloped subplots, and a predictable and clichéd plot.

Now, while Johnson's work as a writer is average at best, he fares a tad better as a director, as he manages to bring to life his comic book adventure with all the wry humor and action he put on paper. As written above, Johnson's movie owes a lot to Western serials and pulp fiction, and this carries out to the visual style too, as even it makes a big nod to the Phantom Rider, the classic Western character that originated "Ghost Rider". Since the main character is literally a living skull on fire, the special effects had to be excellent, and fortunately, they are the best part of the film, as their creation of the rider and his fire is simply outstanding. Sadly, a movie can't be completely about special effects, and to his great misfortune, Johnson's skill as a director of real life actors are considerably inferior to his skill at making great visuals.

Nicolas Cage is surprisingly effective as Johnny Blaze (an improvement over his disastrous performance in the remake of "The Wicker Man"), and against all odds makes a convincing tortured antihero with a very black humor. Peter Fonda and Donal Logue are also pretty good in their small roles, although the real highlight of the film is Sam Elliott, who plays the mysterious Caretaker of the local cemetery. They all make great jobs in their arguably underwritten characters, but sadly, the film is also plagued by awful performances, starting with the one given by Eva Mendes, whom at best feels severely out of place, and at worst looks like an amateur trying to act. Definitely not her best moment. The other cast member who brings the movie down is sadly Wes Bentley, who not only isn't remotely memorable as the main villain, but also overacts to the point of ridicule.

While certainly the bad performance of some cast members hurt the film a lot, it must be said that there really wasn't a lot for them to work with, because as written above, the writing isn't exactly the best material and no matter how good one actor is, the quality of the script will play a major role in the final output. This is specially obvious in the way Johnson fleshed out his villains, as if some characters are insipid, the villains here are dull, uninspired and serve no other purpose that to let the hero show off how amazing he is. A good villain has a definite personality and in "Ghost Rider" they only exist to look good, and that's a real damage to the movie, as there's never a real sense of danger with such weak counterparts for the hero. The complete opposite are Fonda and Elliott's characters, whom are easily the best thing about the film.

Despite all its flaws, I enjoyed "Ghost Rider" for what it was: an action movie with a touch of the Western genre meant to translate the fun and entertainment of comic book adventures to film. I probably liked it more that I should have, but that's mainly because while it certainly lacks a lot of quality, it had a lot of heart, and sometimes that's all that matters. Not a particularly good movie, but it is a good ride.


Buy "Ghost Rider" (2007)

November 10, 2007

Saw (2003)

In January 2004, a horror film titled simply as "Saw" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival generating a lot of interest among the audience, and most importantly, winning a distribution deal with Lions Gate Films, which released the movie to general audiences on October of that year. The rest, as is said, it's history, as the modest horror film became a huge commercial hit that has spawned several sequels by now and also influenced a lot of the style that mainstream horror has had in the first decade of the century. Not bad for a project that started as a short film. Only a year before "Saw"'s rose to stardom, its creators, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, were using a little 9 minutes short film produced by themselves to pitch their concept to various studios and actors. That short film would later become the concept now know as "Saw".

"Saw" is the story of David (Leigh Whannell), an orderly at a hospital who is explaining to a Cop (Paul Moder) the story of how he ended up involved in a heinous crime against his will. One day after work, David gets kidnapped by a mysterious man who drugs him and takes him to an unknown location. When he wakes up, David is sitting on a chair in a darkened room, and has a bizarre artifact placed over his head. In a TV screen he sees an odd looking ventriloquist's dummy, who informs him (obviously the voice is the one of his captor) that the device is a "Jaw Splitter", a machine that will crush his skull if he can't stop it on time. The key to David's survival is to find the key that stops the Jaw Splitter, a key that the killer informs him is hidden inside the body of the dead man lying in the same room as David. But when David goes to get the key, he discovers horrified that the man he has to open is not dead.

Written by actor Leigh Whannell, "Saw" has all the core elements of the "Saw" series premise: a serial killer who do not kills with his own hands, but who instead puts his victims in a deadly trap where they have a chance (albeit small) of survival by doing an often difficult and painful (either physically, mentally or emotionally). It's an interesting take on horror that returns elements of suspense to the genre, as the shock is not only in the killing itself, but in the tension caused by the events that lead to it, and in the idea that the characters can escape from their dreadful fate. It's certainly a simple story, but despite this the concept feels truly fresh and original thanks to this focus. As many will notice (specially fans of the series), "Saw" the short film eventually became part of the first "Saw" film, as it evolved into the experience Amanda has with Jigsaw.

Just as the screenplay has most of the elements that became core part of the "Saw" series, James Wan's work as a director already shows where he was going with this concept and what exactly he wanted to do with it. Like the "Saw" films, the visual look of the short film is sleek, but with a welcomed touch of grittiness that fits perfectly the concept of brutal torture devices of the modern era. The highly dynamic camera-work that Wan uses later in "Saw" is also here (courtesy of cinematographer Martin Smith), as well as his preference for industrial metal music as soundtrack. However, while this was only a low-budget short film, this style feels more at home here than in the feature movie (where it gets tiring), as the atmosphere of fear, shock and desperation it's supposed to create works better in the short than in the films (no wonder why this scene in the feature film is the most iconic).

The acting is also better in this short than in the scene from the feature film, with Leigh Whannell giving a solid and very realistic performance as David. One can truly feel that his character has gone through hell and back, specially in his scenes with the Cop. Please not that I'm not saying that Shawnee Smith (who plays Amanda in the feature) is a bad actress, I'm just saying that Leigh Whannell seems to put a lot more of effort in the role than her (without a doubt because this was his pet project). However, that also must have something to do with the fact that in the feature, Amanda is just another victim, while here, the tortured character is also our narrator, so that gives Whannell more room to explore the role. By the way, Whannell's character is different to the one he plays in the feature, although one is certainly the evolution of the other.

Personally, I found "Saw" the short to be a lot better than "Saw" the film, mainly on the basis that it has everything that makes the first film in the series great (the fresh, original approach to horror and its creative story) without the elements that in my opinion work against it (it obviously lacks the underdeveloped subplots that lead to nowhere in the film). As it was done with a low budget, Wan and Whannell had to use creativity to make it work, and the result is wonderful, as while it may lacks the more graphic violence of the feature (due to the already mentioned budget constrains), it plays more with suspense and tension, which make it a bit more atmospheric and haunting than the movie gets to be. "Saw", the short film, is a very interesting movie to watch (and not only for fans of the series), as it shows what one can do when one plays with an idea and lets it grow.


November 07, 2007

Svengali (1931)

In the early 1930s, the horror genre entered into the era of sound films thanks to producer Carl Laemmle Jr. of Universal Studios, who after the success of "The Cat Creeps" in 1930, and specially "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" in 1931, inaugurated a Golden Age of American horror that produced a lot of classic movies. But while Universal was the major producer of horror movies and literally ruled the genre through the decade, it wasn't the only studio that was producing masterpieces in those years. Warner Bros. Pictures, a studio famous for their musicals, began their history within the genre only three months after Universal's "Dracula" was released, with a movie based on the popular novel by George Du Maurier, "Trilby", in which the legendary actor John Barrymore would enter for a second time in horror history by playing one of the most popular characters in Gothic literature: "Svengali".

Set in France during the 1850s, the movie is the story of Svengali (John Barrymore), a music maestro who often uses his great skill at hypnotism to get what he wants from his pupils. One day he visits a group of artists he knows, hoping to get some money from them, but instead he meets Trilby O'Farrell (Marian Marsh), a beautiful model who has come from England to work with the artists. Svengali falls in love with her, but she prefers one of the artists, Billee (Bramwell Fletcher) instead. Despite this, Svengali doesn't lose hope, and one day when he uses his hypnotic powers to cure her headache, he discovers that while tone deaf, Trillby has actually good vocal chords. With this in mind, Svengali decides to use his power to its full extent and via hypnotism transforms Trillby in "La Svengali", a singer of unparalleled skill completely devoted to him. But Billee won't let him run away with his love.

One of the last works by the experienced writer J. Grubb Alexander, this adaptation of "Trilby" remains close to Du Maurier's novel, but with an important change: the plot is focused completely on Svengali, and the story is shown from his perspective. This is even more interesting because unlike the rest of the villains of the era, Svengali isn't an archetype of pure evil, he is instead a really complex character that can be funny, evil and tragic as well, as he is essentially a human being with a great skill that he chooses to use in his favor. This complexity plays a big role in the film, as one of the central themes is Svengali questioning the morality of his acts and wondering if they are worthy. And despite this, writer Alexander manages to keep an equilibrium between the Gothic horror and the melodrama and the comedy of the script.

Director Archie Mayo was one of the filmmakers who managed to make the jump from silent to "talkies" in the early 30s, and in "Svengali" one can see his experience in the silent era, as it is a very visual film. The most striking feature of the movie is its notoriously expressionist look, that goes beyond what Tod Browning had done in "Dracula" and truly feels like a German silent film at times due to its amazing use of sets and miniatures (including an awe inspiring shot over Paris' rooftops that's still impressive even now). Barney McGill's cinematography is put to great use through the film, and gives the movie a unique, almost surreal look that fits perfectly the themes of hypnotism that the movie handles. Mayo makes his movie to be highly atmospheric, and one can truly feel the tragic sense of impending doom that the characters have.

The legendary John Barrymore returns to the horror genre more than 10 years after his excellent performance in 1920's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", and while lesser known than that famous role, his work as Svengali is simply masterful. As written above, the character is very well developed, and allow Barrymore to show his talent, and while he overacts at times, it strangely doesn't feel out of place in his role as Svengali is after all, an eccentric bohemian artist. Marian Marsh plays Trillby, and while very young at the time (only 17), she makes an excellent counterpart to Barrymore and is a highlight of the film, playing very convincingly the role of the energetic young model that becomes La Svengali under her master's spell. Bramwell Fletcher plays Billee, and while effective, his performance as the story's hero is nothing really amazing.

Some have criticized "Svengali" for its use of comedy, mainly as Svengali is presented as clumsy at times, but in my opinion, that's a strength of the movie, as it offers an atypical villain in the sense that he is very human. Unlike more archetypal villains, it's easier to relate to Svengali, and feel identified with his story of unrequited love, and that's probably what's more disturbing about him: he just had the power to do his will and used it. It's hard to find a real flaw in "Svengali" (although I'm sure some may dislike Barrymore's overacting at times), and probably its main problem is that while it has everything to be a classic, it simply gets easily overshadowed by the more influential (and superior in number) output of Universal Studios. However, I personally find it to be easily on the level of anything done by Universal.

Seldom seen by the audiences nowadays, "Svengali" is one of those movies that even now can be impressive. In this movie, director Archie Mayo and John Barrymore give justice to Du Maurier's legendary character and bring him to life in extraordinary fashion. With its excellent performances and the beautiful art design, "Svengali" is definitely a forgotten masterpiece if there ever was one.


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November 06, 2007

The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934)

While originally created as the embodiment of the racism towards Asian people that was prevalent when British writer Sax Rohmer wrote about him for the first time, the criminal mastermind Dr. Fu Manchu is nowadays considered as one of the most famous and influential characters in fiction. In the early 30s, several movies about Fu Manchu were very popular, specially the fourth one, 1932's "The Mask of Fu Manchu", which had horror legend Boris Karloff playing the infamous criminal (Swedish actor Warner Oland played Fu Manchu in the first three American movies). While not a success of the proportions of other horror movies of the same period, "The Mask of Fu Manchu" performed very good commercially, and producer George Yohalem at the legendary B movie studio Monogram Pictures decided to make his own thriller with an Asian mastermind played by another horror legend: Bela Lugosi, who in those years was beginning to be type-casted in villainous roles.

A series of mysterious murders begin to take place in San Francisco's Chinatown, in what at first sight looks like a war between rival Tongs, the infamous Chinese American secret societies. Reporter Jason Barton (Wallace Ford), is sent to investigate on the case, but while he also initially believes that this killings are nothing more than a typical clash between mafias, soon he discovers that the truth behind them is far more amazing than what he ever thought, as the clues unveil a mysterious criminal mastermind known only as Wong (Bela Lugosi) as the responsible of the murders. Mr. Wong is looking for the Twelve Coins of Confucius, a mythical set of coins that according to legend, will grant to its owner the power to rule over an ancient Chinese province. Barton will have to solve the mystery behind the identity of Mr. Wong in order to stop him before he finds the twelfth coin.

Written by Lew Levenson and Nina Howatt, "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" is an adaptation of a short story by the then popular detective fiction writer Harry Stephen Keeler, "The Twelve Coins of Confucius", which was included in his "Sing Sing Nights" book (itself adapted to film that very same year). Like many horror and mystery films of those days, "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" follows a wisecracking reporter trying to catch a murderer and solve the case, however, what's interesting about this movie (and Keeler's original story) is that even when the movie was obviously done to cash in the success of "Fu Manchu", the attitude towards the Asian people is completely different, as although the villain is of Asian origin, most of the Asian characters are presented (albeit stereotypically) as wise and cultured people while the American counterparts are racist and ignorant about their culture.

Director William Nigh, famous for his career on B movies, helms "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" with his usual restrained but effective style. While the movie is built like a thriller in the "Fu Manchu" style (sometimes it almost feels like a chapter from a serial), Nigh keeps the movie deeply rooted in its crime fiction origins, and it even has traces of the elements that would evolve in the Film-Noir genre of the 40s. Already used to work with truly limited budgets, director William Nigh packs his movie nicely and makes the most of what he's got, wisely leaving his cast (namely Bela Lugosi and William Ford) to do their thing and drive the film with their talents. Nigh may had been a Poverty Row director, but he knew what worked on his movies and this time his work with the cast was spot on. Sadly, it wouldn't be enough to save a movie with an extremely poor script.

As written above, it is the cast's performances what truly makes the film worthy, as while the script it of a mediocre quality, the three lead actors make a terrific job with what they had in their hands. As our wisecracking hero, Ford is genuinely funny in his delivery of jokes and one-liners, showing that ease with comedy that he had showed before in Browning's "Freaks". Arline Judge plays the romantic interest, but she doesn't limit herself to be a damsel in distress, as she makes her character the real equivalent of Ford's and gives their relationship the dynamics of classic screwball comedy. Finally, Bela Lugosi steals the show as usual in his performance as the ambitious Mr. Wong, playing a malicious and intelligent character with great skill and enthusiasm. It's odd to see him play a Chinese man, but his accent actually works and one wonders how Fu Manchu movie with Bela would had been.

It's a real shame that such great performances get wasted in the movie, as while they make the movie worth a watch, they aren't enough to save the film from its problems, deeply rooted in the awful script built from Keeler's short story. It's true that Harry Stephen Keeler's novels never were really high class literature, but Levenson and Howatt's screenplay make what could had been an exciting mix of horror and thriller to feel slow and average. The main problem is that the movie has a great potential (that gets shown in a couple of scenes), but never truly delivers because it fails to explore what it proposes and everything ends in good ideas that never really were exploited. In all fairness, this may had been caused by their budgetary limitations, as one gets the feeling that the story was cut to make the movie shorter.

While "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" never really reaches its true potential, it's still a fun (albeit average) thriller that benefits a lot from Judge, Ford and specially Lugosi. It's no masterpiece, but despite its limitations, it's a very entertaining film. And by the way, this movie has no relation to the other "Mr. Wong" movies produced later by Monogram, where the character was reworked as a detective in the vein of Charlie Chan.


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November 01, 2007

Peeping Tom (1960)

Without a doubt, 1960 was a year of numerous and important changes in the history of cinema, specially in the horror genre, as with the beginning of the end of the Production Code, new and different ideas began to be explored within the genre's conventions. One of those was the introduction of complex psychological themes and sexual overtones, inaugurating what is now known as "psychological horror" with movies like 1959's "Horrors of the Black Museum" and Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece, "Psycho", which gave a human face to the monsters of horror movies (as previously most were of supernatural origin). Another of those significant movies that helped to change the genre in the 60s is without a doubt Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom", a morbid tale of horror and suspense about voyeurism that follows that very same path of psychological horror and, like "Psycho" (released three months after "Peeping Tom"), elevates it to an art-form.

"Peeping Tom" is the story of Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), a young focus puller in a British film studio who aspires to become a filmmaker himself. A shy and lonely man, Lewis is not very social, and prefers to spend his time with his camera, working as a photographer of pornographic pictures of women. However, this young man has another secret, and that is that he is actually a serial killer who films and murders young women, the same that the police has been looking out for weeks. Things get complicated when he meets Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), a young woman who lives downstairs with her mother (Maxine Audley) in a room they rent to Mark. Soon, her friendship begins to mean a lot to Mark, as she offers him an honest understanding he had never had before. However, the shadow of Mark's traumas and obsessions is always present, and he'll have a hard time facing his demons.

Written by former cryptographer Leo Marks (albeit Powell had a hand in the script as well), "Peeping Tom" is a deep and disturbing journey through the darkest sides of the mind as it's entirely focused on Mark as the main character. Unlike Hitchcock's "Psycho" (a movie often compared to "Peeping Tom"), the serial killer is not seen through the eyes of those around him, in this film we are living the story entirely from his perspective, discovering the person behind the psychopath personality as well as the reasons behind such a disturbed mind. In a way, it's a deeper humanization of the serial killer character, although interestingly, it doesn't attempt to glorify him or justify him (like posterior movies of the same type did), as the movie centers on his attempt to stop doing what he knows is wrong and his desire to have a normal life.

Using a strikingly beautiful color cinematography (by Otto Heller) and a remarkably skillful use of the first person viewpoint, director Michael Powell conceives "Peeping Tom" as a bizarre chant to the voyeur we all have inside, and the pleasure we get from watching others. It's not for nothing that our central character is a filmmaker himself, as the concept of filming a person becomes one with the concept of killing one, as like some have done before (Buñuel for example), the camera is taken as an aggressive, almost physically violent entity that invades and steals the life essence of the person filmed. However, it's not only Powell's use of cinematography what shines in "Peeping Tom", his overall use of suspense in the creation of his scenes plays a major role in this highly atmospheric movie where one can almost feel the tension that fills Mark's mind at every step.

And this takes us to the cast, which under Powell's direction deliver for the most part excellent performances. Karlheinz Böhm is truly the highlight of the film, as his acting as Mark is instrumental for the success of the movie. Making a very real and believable character, Böhm transmits perfectly how insecure and vulnerable his character is deep inside, giving definitely one of the best performances in a horror movie ever done. As Helen, the young girl who befriends Mark, Anna Massey is simply perfect, as she perfectly portrays the naiveté of the character, as well as the innocence that leaves a profound effect on Mark's psyche. As Helen's mother, Maxine Audley is effective and has a couple of excellent scenes, although it must be said that the film ultimately belongs to Böhm and Massey, as its their relationship what becomes the central focus of the story.

As one can imagine, this movie is not the typical horror movie, it's complex and dark, but also disturbingly very human; definitely not what people expected from director Michael Powell, whom along Emeric Pressburger made some of the most cherished British film of the 50s. This darkness of the subject that "Peeping Tom" handled was too much for the audiences used to Powell's previous work, and therefore the movie failed commercially and sent Powell's career to oblivion. However, it must be said that none of the problems "Peeping Tom" had during its release are due to poor film-making, quite the contrary, as this movie ranks easily amongst the most influential horror films ever done, and its commercial failure can only be blamed to the fact that it was ahead of its time. Despite the harsh bashing it received, Powell considered this movie his masterpiece, and I can only agree with him.

One of the most interesting (and disturbing) movies about serial killers, "Peeping Tom" is easily one of the best too. The comparisons with "Psycho" are fair, albeit this is certainly a different kind of beast, as it's like a deeper, harsher version of the same subject but with less psychology and a lot more of heart. And it's probably this enormous humanity what makes the film so ultimately disturbing. A really influential classic of horror that should be better known in the future as the masterpiece that it is.


October 30, 2007

Top 15 Overlooked Horror Films for this Halloween

The last week of October often brings the question of, "what to watch on Halloween?", as a lot of people like to spend the night (or some lucky ones the whole day!) watching a scary movie or a horror classic to be "in the mood". That's why it's usual in these days for many sites about cinema to post lists of recommended horror films for the Halloween celebration, and following the tradition, I want to offer a list too. However, this is not going to be the typical list of horror classics, filled with legendary films like Carpenter's "Hallween" or Whale's "Frankenstein" in its ranks. No, W-Cinema's list presents 15 often overlooked classics that, while less known than the usual suspects, are in my opinion as interesting, fun and creepy as the typical Top 10 horror films. Here it is, W-Cinema's Top 15 Overlooked Horror Films for this Halloween!

15. Son of Frankenstein (1939, Rowland V. Lee)
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Often overshadowed by the magnitude and fame of both "Frankenstein" (1931) and "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), Rowland V. Lee's entry in the saga proves that sometimes, in very rare ocassions, a second sequel can be on the level of the first two parts. With beautiful cinematography, expressionist set design, Basil Rathbone as the title character, Karloff as the monster again, and a magnificent Bela Lugosi giving one of his best performances as the sinister Ygor, "Son of Frankenstein" is a real treat for any fan of the Universal classics.

Buy "Son of Frankenstein" (1939)

14. Dust Devil (1992, Richard Stanley)
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Straight from South Africa, director Richard Stanley presents this tale about a supernatural serial killer who roams the roads of the desert looking for victims as he poses as a hitchhiker. The restored Director's Cut of "Dust Devil" finally shows what Stanley inteded with this visually amazing journey through the desert: a powerful horror tale that it's part western and part slasher, all spiced up with a good dose of South African folk lore. A wildly original and creepy movie.

Buy "Dust Devil" (1992)

13. Körkarlen (1921, Victor Sjöström)
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Victor Sjöström is probably better known for playing Dr. Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman's famous "Smultronstället" ("Wild Strawberries", 1957), but he was also one of the most celebrated directors of the early years of the Swedish film industry. In 1921 he adapted Selma Lagerlöf's novel "Körkarlen" ("The Phantom Carriage"), the tale of a man doomed to drive Death's cart and pick up the souls of the dead because of his extremely sinful life. Less known than other silent horrors, this amazing movie mixes perfectly the supernatural with the melodrama resulting in one of the most beautiful silent films in history.

Buy "Körkarlen" (1921)

12. Cronos (1993, Guillermo del Toro)
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Nowdays, after the enormous success of both "Hellboy" (2004) and "El Laberinto del Fauno" (2006), the name of Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro is now a familiar one when discussing horror and fantasy films, however, his talent was alreay showing since the early days of his career, as his feature length debut, "Cronos", proves. a clever twists on the vampire myth, this film narrates the tale of an old antiquarian who discovers the joy of living thanks to a mysterious artifact.

Buy "Cronos" (1993)

11. Mad Love (1935, Karl Freund)
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Like Lugosi, Karloff, Price and Lee, Peter Lorre is a name forever asociated with the dark and the bizarre, from his performance in Fritz Lang's "M" to his role as Joel Cairo in "The Maltese Falcon". In Karl Freund's "Mad Love", he is definitely in his element, as a surgeon hopelessly obsessed with an actress married to a famous pianist. When her husband loses his hands in an accident, she asks the doctor to save him, but problems arise when its discovered that the doctor implanted the hands of a killer in his patient.

Buy "Mad Love" (1935)

10. Martin (1977, George A. Romero)
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While forever associated with zombies, ghouls and all kinds of living corpses, director George A. Romero has more to offer besides his now classic saga of the living dead, and "Martin" is probably his best movie out of the zombie genre. Like "Cronos", this is another clever twist on the vampire myth, with a young man named Martin claiming to be a vampire and trying to live in the city with his uncle. However, Martin is not like what movies have told us about vampires, as he has no fangs, and sunlight makes him little harm, but his uncle is decided to stop his "condition".

Buy "Martin"(1977)

9. Jacob's Ladder (1990, Adrian Lyne)
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In "Jacob's Ladder" Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam veteran who begins to experience severe hallucinations and is constantly haunted by flashbacks to his past. Sounds like a good idea for a drama, but writer Bruce Joel Rubin and director Adrian Lyne decided to give the story a twist and made one of the best and most frightening horror movies of the 90s. Like a nightmare, "Jacob's Ladder" is filled with disturbing surreal imagery and constant twists that even if one discovers how it ends, the journey is never boring. By the way, this movie was a major inspiration for the "Silent Hill" series of videogames.

Buy "Jacob's Ladder" (1990)

8. Svengali (1931, Archie Mayo)
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Usually, whenever one talks about horror from the 30s, movies like "Dracula", "Frankenstein" and the rest of Universal Studios' catalogue are the first movies that come to mind, however they weren't by any means the only brilliant horrors done in those years. Based on George du Maurier's novel, "Trilby", "Svengali" features the legendary John Barrymore as the famous musician Svengali, whom using his skills as a hypnotist can do whatever he wants with the mind of the young singer Trilby, except perhaps what he would want the most: to be loved by her. This is a real forgotten classic as good as anything Universal made in their Golden Age.

Buy "Svengali" (1931)

7. Hasta el Viento tiene Miedo (1968, Carlos Enrique Taboada)
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Often praised as the best Mexican horror movie ever made (along with "El Libro de Piedra" by the same director), this gothic tale of ghosts has been rarely seen out of its native country. Forced to spend their summer vacation at school as a punishment for disobeying orders, a group of teenage girls begin to experience supernatural events apparently related to the dark past of their school. By the way, the movie is shot in color (Taboada was greatly influenced by Italian filmmakers) but sadly I could not find a real image from the film, just this production still.

Buy "Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo" (1968)

6. The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer)
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Well, I couldn't help it, I had to include one film from the Golden Age of Universal Studios, however, this movie isn't the typical monster film that the studio used to make in those years, this is the best of what is now known as the "Poe Cycle", a series of films "inspired" by Edgar Allan Poe. In "The Black Cat", a couple in their honeymoon trip through Eastern Europe has an accident and is forced to stay at the house of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), a famous engineer and architect with a somber personality. With them is Poelzig's old friend, Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), but the meeting of the old friends won't be a nice one.

Buy "The Black Cat" (1934)

5. The Curse of the Werewolf (1961, Terence Fisher)
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As in the case of Universal Studios, the famous "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" series produced by Hammer Studios in the 60s (with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing) tend to overshadow most of the other classics that the legendary studio made in its time. 1961's "The Curse of the Werewolf", directed by Terence Fisher and starring Oliver Reed is sadly a prime example of this, and I say sadly as in my opinion this is the finest movie the British studio everproduced, with everything Fisher used for "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" taken to perfection. Personally, I find this movie to be superior to Universal's "The Wolf Man".

Buy "The Curse of the Werewolf" (1961)

4. El Día de la Bestia (1995, Álex De la Iglesia)
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A crazed priest, an exceptic psychic, a joyful rocker and the Antichrist, what else does one need? Spaniard director Álex De la Iglesia conceives a wildly original horror comedy that came to bring new life to Spain's horror scene back in the 90s, and proved that Spain's cinema was more than Almodovar and melodrama. With a very irreverent black humor and great style, this tale of a priest in a desperate hunt for the Antichrist is one movie that must be experienced. Whomever said that horror and comedy don't mix must check this one out.

3. Dead Ringers (1988, David Cronenberg)
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One of the most interesting directors of the modern times, David Cronenberg created some of the most fascinating horror movies during the decade of the 80s. His 1988 movie, "Dead Ringers", is probably the crowning achievement of his horror period (where he also made the masterpieces "Videodrome" and the remake of "The Fly"), as this bizarre tale about the relationship between two identical brothers (both played masterfully by Jeremy Irons) contains the best of his filmmaking style and is the bridge between his young adulthood to his mature career.

Buy "Dead Ringers" (1988)

2. The Body Snatcher (1945, Robert Wise)
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I wouldn't be lying if I said that producer Val Lewton of RKO pictures single-handedly kept the flame of high quality American horror alive during the 40s, as not only the movies produced by him were among the best, he discovered the talents of many remarkable directors such as Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson. Tourneur's "Cat People" is often lauded as the best, but while its certainly the most influential, personally I find the overlooked "The Body Snatcher" to be the brightest jewel amongst the movies Lewton produced in the 40s.

Buy "The Val Lewton Horror Collection"

1. Le Locataire (1976, Roman Polanski)

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And so we have arrived to the Top spot, Roman Polanski's "Le Locataire", or as it is known in English, "The Tenant"; the surreal tal of man who begins to believe that the other tenants in the building where he lives are conspiring against him and want to kill him just as they did with the previous tenant who occupied his apartment. Part of the so called "Apartment Trilogy" (along "Repulsion" and "Rosemary's Baby"), Polanski plays with paranoia and the surreal in a movie that probably reflects the way he saw life after the death of Sharon Tate and his posterior exile in Europe (he plays the lead role after all). Visually breathtaking, this gothic surreal trip moves slo, but is truly a disturbing and creepy experience.

Buy "Le Locataire" (1976)

UPDATE 2011: Be sure to check out these 15 overlooked horrors for Halloween as well...