May 24, 2011

Museo del Horror (1964)

During the last half of the 1950s, Mexican cinema showed a renewed interest in the horror genre after the success of Chano Urueta's "La Bruja" (1954) and "El Monstruo Resucitado" (1955), two low budget horror films that combined classic horror elements like Gothic horror and pulp science fiction, with a noir urban atmosphere and a very Mexican flavour. A series of low budget horror films followed them, result of the efforts of producers Abel Salazar and Jesús Sotomayor, which working with low budgets but with great enthusiasm, developed a new style of horror filmmaking and nurtured the talents of directors such as Fernando Méndez and Rafael Baledón. This productive era for Mexican horror would last until the 70s, and produce several films of great interest. Amongst them was "Museo del Horror" (1964), a film produced by Jesús Sotomayor and directed by Rafael Baledón, which was basically a mix of Warner Brothers' "Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933) and "House of Wax" (1953), spiced up with the Gothic-noir flavour of Mexican horror.

Set in Mexico City during the early years of the 20th century, "Museo del Horror" (literally "Museum of Horror") begins with a series of kidnapings taking place through the city, the victims always being young attractive women. The police seems to be unable to catch the killer and the population begins to live with fear. Marta (Patricia Conde) is the daughter of the landlady (Emma Roldán) of an old lodging-house, and she begins to be prey of the paranoia. Specially since several of her mother's tenants could be the killer, being all single and lonely men: the odd doctor Raúl (Julio Alemán), whose experiments require female corpses, the old mysterious embalmer (Carlos López Moctezuma) or the charming actor Luis (Joaquín Cordero), forced to retire from the stage due to a limp leg. The three of them become suspects by the police, but the killings continue. In the meantime, Raúl pursues Marta's love, but her eyes are set on Luis, who has turned his artistic talents to the creation of highly detailed figures for the local wax museum.

Written by José María Fernández Unsáin, at first sight it would seem that "Museo del Horror" is nothing more than a regional clone from André De Toth's 3-D classic "House of Wax", but even when the premise of the story is basically the same, scriptwriter Fernández Unsáin develops his story in a completely different fashion. For starters, the plot has been returned to its origins as a murder mystery (as was the original "Mystery of the Wax Museum" film), but with the very Agatha Christie plot device of having several characters gathered as suspects. The tenants at the lodging-house become the collection of suspects, and Marta, the unwilling participant in the solution of this mystery. The dialog in the scenes at the lodging-house is particularly good. The addition of the love triangle adds an interesting element that, despite some bits of exaggerated melodrama (in the typical style of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema), fits in the story surprisingly well, and gives the film's climatic ending a more emotive tone.

With a great eye for atmosphere and a pretty good timing for suspense, director Rafael Baledón continues the dark, ominous visual style he mastered in his previous horror film, the remarkable "La maldición de la Llorona" ("The Curse of the Crying Woman"), and delivers a Gothic murder mystery that manages to be entertaining despite its shortcomings. As written above, the mystery surrounding the identity of the killer is the center of the story, and Baledón manages to sustain it through the film in a very suspenseful way. The work of cinematography, by seasoned veteran Raúl Martínez Solares, is of truly great quality; with a great use of light and shadows to create heavy atmospheres of mystery. The scenes inside of the museum have a haunting beauty with a darkness that contrasts with the apparent comfort of the lodging-house. The film has also some striking sequences that look very good despite the obvious low budget. Baledón keeps the tone serious, avoids the camp (that seems to be abundant in Mexican horror films) and manages to get some good performances by his cast.

The cast is for the most part good, and it's also one of the main reasons the film works. Patricia Conde is appropriate, if a bit restrained in her performance as Marta. However, she is quite natural and believable as a young woman in love with a suspect of the crimes. Unfortunately, her character is not as well defined as the rest, and at times is nothing more than a damsel in distress (perhaps something to blame to more conservative social values). As the doctor Raúl, Julio Alemán is effective, although clearly overshadowed by Joaquín Cordero's Luis. Alemán is a tad wooden, while Cordero's presence makes him steal every scene he is in. In a way, this does help the story's development, given that Marta's heart is for the brooding actor Luis instead of the more rational Raúl; but still, Alemán comes down when facing Cordero on screen. Another scene stealer is clearly character actor Carlos López Moctezuma, whom as the mysterious embalmer, López Moctezuma delivers his classic performance as a "man you love to hate".

Perhaps the greatest problem in "Museo del Horror" is that, even when scriptwriter Fernández and director Baledón do put a lot of care in the developing of the mystery and that it honestly has a good share of originality, the story does become a bit predictable, specially if one has seen "Mystery of the Wax Museum" or "House of Wax" (and there's even a Santo film released the previous year based on the "Wax Museum" films). Nevertheless, the story's predictability doesn't prevent the film from being an entertaining murder mystery, thanks in part to the way Baledón presents the story and the stylish look the movie has. The love triangle is an interesting addition to the mystery, with Marta divided between two men who seem to represent opposite and colliding sides: the rational yet cold doctor Raúl, and the emotional and passionate actor Luis. One plays with corpses and the other with wax figurines. Without spoiling much, it could be said that the film shows that the extremes of those sides can lead to dark, insane and dangerous situations.

Certainly, "Museo del Horror" may be of a lesser quality than Baledón's masterpiece (the aforementioned "La maldición de la Llorona"), but like that film, it offers a very particular view on horror, clearly influenced by Universal's Gothic horror from the 30s and the popular pulp novels of crime and mystery fiction. Of course, one can't help to compare it to the Warner Brothers' films that served as basis for it but, while apparently similar, "Museo del Horror" has a its very own personality, an identity shaped by the growing urbanity of Mexico city and perhaps closer in spirit to the films noir of the period than to the classic Gothic films that inspired it. A minor gem, "Museo del Horror" offers a new and fresh take on a familiar horror story.


May 20, 2011

Santo en el museo de cera (1963)

Without a doubt, the most iconic figure in the history of Mexican wrestling is Rodolfo Guzmán, whom as Santo transcended the ring and became a legend. Cinema played a big role in this, as the popular wrestler began a career as an actor that transformed Santo the wrestler into Santo the hero. Crime moguls, alien invaders, vampire women and other monsters became the villains in a variety of films that ranged from spy thrillers to Gothic horrors during 20 years of career. While most of those films were marred by poor production values, some are true gems that deserve a rediscovery, and "Santo en el Museo de Cera" (literally "Santo in the Wax Museum") is one of them. Done a year after the very successful 1962's horror "Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro" ("Santo vs. the Vampire Women"), director Alfonso Corona Blake crafted a new adventure of the famed Mexican wrestler. Inspired by the 1953 horror classic "House of Wax", this Santo adventure continued the formula of action, mystery and Gothic horror; and the result is one of the best Santo movies of his early career.

Better known in English as "Samson in the Wax Museum" (title given by K. Gordon Murray for his dubbed version), the story starts when a series of kidnappings begin to take place near the very popular Wax Museum of Dr. Karol (Claudio Brook). Susana (Norma Mora), a photographer from an important newspaper, plans to make an article about the museum, and visits it after hours. After interviewing Dr. Karol, she leaves but is kidnapped on her way home. Her colleague, Ricardo (Rubén Rojo) and her sister Gloria (Roxana Bellini) call the police and all the clues seem to point to Dr. Karol. However, Karol asks famous wrestler and crime fighter Santo (himself) for protection, as he believes someone is framing him for the crimes, and fears for his life. After Santo prevents an assassination attempt on Karol, he accepts to protect the mysterious Doctor; however, with aid from Ricardo and Gloria, he begins his own investigation about the mysterious kidnappings, and soon the three will discover what's hidden in the Wax Museum.

Written by Corona Blake himself (adapting a story by Fernando Galiana and Julio Porter), "Santo en el Museo de Cera" belongs to the kind of Santo films that make of the Man on the Silver Mask a mix of fantasy warrior and superhero, in a similar fashion to comic book characters: a superhero that can be called to fight the forces of evil. This angle on the character deliberately leaves Santo's identity and origins in total obscurity, making simply an archetypal hero. This unfortunately results in a very poor development of Santo as character (this would change in future Santo films), but also makes the adventure itself the main focus of the story. As the film is about Santo trying to prove that Dr. Karol is responsible of the kidnappings, the story is filled with many interesting twists that put a greater emphasis on the mystery. It's worth to point out that despite being an odd clone of "Mystery of the Wax Museum" and "House of Wax", the story has a certain degree of originality, and one of the most interesting villains in any Santo film.

As in "Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro", the work of director Alfonso Corona Blake is subtle but effective, keeping a nice balance between action and mystery and once again, focusing on atmosphere rather than downright scares. A very visual movie, the film mixes the urban look of late 50s Mexico city with the Gothic horror of the Wax Museum, as if the Museum was like a time capsule filled with the horrors from the past. Corona and cinematographer José Ortiz Ramos (who would also create the highly atmospheric Gothic horror "La Maldición de la Llorona" that same year) craft a visual atmosphere that's both creepy and fascinating, and that seems as taken straight from the pages of pulp horror novels. "Santo en el Museo de Cera" is not really a movie meant to be scary, it's more a thrilling action film with a mystery to solve and a creepy horror atmosphere as a setting. Despite the low budget, Corona Blake manages to pull off a classy final product that avoids the involuntary camp of posterior Santo films.

In "Santo en el Museo de Cera", Santo had a greater role to play than in the previous "Santo vs. the Vampire Women", although as written above, he is still the mysterious masked adventurer whom the protagonists call when it's necessary to solve crimes and fight evil. While not really his best work of acting, the script is consciously built to not let Santo's lack of experience mess with the film, which is why Rubén Rojo as Ricardo does the talking and is Gloria's love interest (certainly Corona Blake knew that his star was not exactly Oscar-material). The whole opposite is Claudio Brook, who like Lorena Velázquez in "Las Mujeres Vampiro", becomes the center of the film with a terrific performance as Dr. Karol. In "Santo en el Museo de Cera" Brook creates a complex ambiguous character that, like all the good monsters, can be both an overwhelming mastermind of evil and a really sympathetic man. It is the ambiguous nature of Brook's role what drives the film for the most part, and so Brook's performance is certainly the highlight of the movie.

Like most (if not all) Mexican fantasy films, "Santo en el Museo de Cera" suffers from the serious problem of having a really low-budget to work with. Despite Santo being an extremely popular wrestler, genre films never got good production values and unfortunately, this does hurt the film at times. While Corona Blake crafted great atmospheric shots and "Santo en el Museo de Cera" did had a better production than previous Santo films, at times the cheap special effects and the bad make up truly take away the feeling of the film. The lack of character development for Santo is another problem, particularly enhanced for the fact that the lead couple is pretty much annoying and uninteresting (posterior Santo films would make Santo the romantic lead instead of requiring a third party). Another small quibble is that the film loses a lot of steam by the ending, as it becomes another typical film by the moment of the final confrontation. Still, "Santo en el Museo De Cera" is one of the better Santo films, as it presents an atmospheric movie with beautiful Gothic cinematography.

Along with "Santo vs. Las Mujeres Vampiro", "Santo en el Museo de Cera", or "Santo in the Wax Museum", is one of the best Santo films produced, and a worthy addition to the Mexican horror filmography. The mix of the Santo character with the basic plot of "Mystery of the Wax Museum" and "House of Wax" results in a thrilling piece that, while probably not a masterpiece of horror, is surely a very entertaining movie to watch at night. In recent history, Santo films are rarely taken seriously as art, but the films directed by Alfonso Corona Blake with Ortiz Ramos as cinematographer are of a different, higher quality than the rest, and more than deserve a good revaluation. This new take on the Wax Museum story makes for a good introduction to that very Mexican variety of horror films with wrestlers.


May 19, 2011

House of Wax (1953)

The year of 1952 is widely considered as the beginning of the so-called "Golden Age" of 3-D filmmaking, as it was during that year when "Bwana Devil", the first color stereoscopic feature in 3-D was released. It proved to be a hit, and the enormous success of this new way of achieving 3-D prompted Warner Bros. Pictures to prepare a similar movie to compete in this trend. And to do it, it would resurrect a movie that in its time, also was the flagship for a technological advance: the two-strip Technicolor thriller "Mystery of the Wax Museum". So, 20 years after the release of Michael Curtiz' Technicolor murder mystery, Warner Brothers Pictures decided to make a brand new version of the movie using the new 3-D technology that was beginning to be very popular. Titled "House of Wax" and directed by André De Toth, the movie would not only become the most successful 3-D movie of its day, but also the first one with stereophonic sound and, probably its most important achievement, the film that would fully introduce the legendary actor Vincent Price to the Horror genre.

The plot actually follows very closely the original's storyline, although of course, with several important changes. In 1910s New York, Prof. Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) is an unnaturally talented sculptor, whose wax figures are of an amazing beauty and realism. However, his refusal to make sensationalistic exhibits to attract more people to his Wax Museum enrage his financial partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts), so Burke decides to burn the place with Jarrod inside in order to collect the insurance money. Several months later, it is discovered that Prof. Jarrod survived, albeit badly hurt and with his hands and legs useless, but with the intention of reopening his "House of Wax" with the aid of a deaf mute student named Igor (Charles Bronson). At the museum's opening, a young woman named Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) makes a shocking discovery: the figure representing Joan of Arc looks extremely like her best friend Cathy (Carolyn Jones), who was just recently murdered by a mysterious stranger. It would be up to her to solve the mystery of this new house of wax.

Written by Crane Wilbur, the plot is essentially the same as in the original, being also based on Charles Belden's story and play; however, unlike the play and the original movie, Wilbur chooses to focus on the horror element of the story, transforming the whole tale of mystery into a classic Gothic story, almost in the style of Universal's horror films of the 30s (the movie is set in that decade). The main change in the narrative is that this time there is no mystery about who is committing the murders, the classic "whodunit" pattern of murder mysteries here is inverted in the so-called "howcatchem" and places the villain under the spotlight almost since the beginning. With this change, Wilbur makes the story a new kind of beast and really enhances the suspense, drama and darkness of the story. And since the mystery is no longer a subject of importance in the story, the characters and their relationships become a bit more developed as they become the center of the story, allowing the actors (specially Vincent Price) to showcase their talents.

Director André De Toth was probably the best suited to adapt Crane Wilbur's script to the screen, being already renowned by his psychological take on the films noir and westerns he crafted during the 40s. De Toth's take on the script is elegant and classy, yet with a certain touch of grittiness in the creation of the murders, and an ominous Gothic atmosphere very much in tone with the focus on horror that Wilbur gave to the script. With lavish set designs and an excellent use of color (wouldn't be hard to see it as an influence for the vibrant style of the British Hammer films), De Toth creates a beautiful film to look at with his usual brilliant use of cinematography (by Bert Glennon and J. Peverell Marley) that even without the 3-D effect still looks wonderful. His use of 3-D is notable in its originality and most importantly, on its subtlety (although there are two or three moments are obvious campy gimmicks to show off the 3-D). While the movie certainly loses some of its impact on TV, it's still a marvel of production design, with a great beauty to look at.

The cast is one of the film's best features, starting with Vincent Price, who after this movie his career would take him from being a reliable character actor to become an icon of the horror genre. In the role previously played by Lionel Atwill, Price creates a far more sympathetic character, as his unusual charm, suave screen presence and ease of word simply take over the screen and make the character very likable, despite having such a dark past. Price easily steals every scene he is in, and makes of Jarrod an unforgettable horror villain. Phyllis Kirk has a character meant to replace the wisecracking reporter of the original story, and while the character is transformed from determined adventurer to damsel in distress, Kirk's performance makes her very sensible and real, and far less weak and passive than what a role like hers could had been. A young Carolyn Jones (whom later would be famous in the TV series "The Addams Family") appears as Sue's friend Cathy Gray, and despite having very short scenes she showcases her great beauty and promising talent in a wonderful way.

With its gloomy atmosphere, gritty murder scenes and the unforgettable Price, "House of Wax" has truly enough to be rightfully considered as a classic of the genre. Sadly, the film loses a lot of its impact without the 3-D technology, as it leaves some of the most notorious 3-D scenes (particularly near the intermission) as obvious gimmicks that serve to no purpose other than to showcase how good the 3-D visuals look. I'm sure than on a 3-D projection the same scenes are wonderful, but without the technology, they really lose their magic and make blatant what should just be enjoyed seamlessly. While there are 3-D films that can be enjoyed on normal projections, those gimmicky scenes in "House of Wax" ruin the pace of an otherwise thrilling ride. Despite that tragedy, the film holds up very well, and regarding to how it compares to the original, the interesting thing is that despite having the same plot, "House of Wax" is a completely different experience due to its more horror-oriented plot.

And that would be the key of this remake: it's a different take on the story. Instead of being a rehash of a proved hit, De Toth's film opts for creating a new exploration of the story. Curtiz' film is modernist and sleek, De Toth's style is Gothic and ominous. A different style makes a different film. And that's something that many producers of remakes seem to forget, that a remake is the chance to try something new. A definitive must-see for horror fans, "House of Wax" may not feel the same without the impact of its 3-D visuals, but it still is a very influential film with superb direction, wonderful visuals and the excellent work of its cast. In the end, both "House of Wax" and the original "Mystery of the Wax Museum" make for an excellent double-bill where one can discover the excellent results of remakes done right.


May 18, 2011

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

In the late 20s, Hungarian director Michael Curtiz was a recently arrived foreigner working at Warner Bros. after having impressed legendary producer Jack Warner with the Biblical epics he crafted while working in Austria (he would make a Biblical epic for Warner in 1928, "Noah's Ark"). Part of that influx of European filmmakers that arrived in those years, Curtiz began to make himself a name as a hard working director who managed to work efficiently under the studio system, working in several films a year. In 1931 Universal studios had found success with horror films, and Warner decided to enter the game as well, and so Curtiz found success with the horror films "The Mad Genius" and "Doctor X", proving to be not only and efficient filmmaker, but also one able to make box-office hits. It was the success of "Doctor X" what prompted Warner Brothers to make another horror movie in the same style (in two-strip Technicolor), with the same same cast, and keeping Michael Curtiz as director. The result was the now classic, "Mystery of the Wax Museum".

In the film, Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is an extremely talented sculptor of wax figures in 1921 London, however, his investment partner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell) thinks that Igor's business is not making enough money for both of them, and starts a fire at Igor's Wax Museum in order to collect the insurance money. Thirteen years later, Ivan Igor is tragically crippled and unable to use his hands, but with the help of his students he is finally ready to reopen his wax museum in New York City. In the meantime, the police is baffled by the case of several corpses stolen from the City's morgue, including the one of a famous socialité, model Joan Gale (Monica Bannister). The case attracts the attention of Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell), a young and ambitious reporter looking for the story that would launch her career. Dempsey immediately starts to investigate, and her suspicions lead lead her to important clues. Igor's strange obsession with Florence's roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray) will take her to uncover the dark mystery of the Wax Museum.

The key word in "Mystery of the Wax Museum" is "Mystery", as unlike it's better known 1953 remake (which focuses instead on more graphic horror and suspense), this version of Charles Belden's short story behaves more like a traditional, yet really captivating, murder mystery where the main character, Florence, must discover who is committing the crimes, and more importantly, "how". Adapted to the screen by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson, the movie has a pretty nice twists, a good amount of suspense and a very original premise (for the time) that keep the mystery and suspense high as the plot unfolds smoothly despite the fast pace of the film. The fact that it was written before the days of the Hays code allows the film to include lots of sexual innuendo and situations that, while the Hays code would later consider immoral, do add a lot of the story. The characters are overall very well developed, and the addition of comedy (courtesy of Farrell's wisecracking character) works nicely within the creepy mystery of the story.

One of the lasts movies to be shot in the primitive two-color Technicolor system, "Mystery of the Wax Museum" has a marvelous bleached look that suits perfectly the modernist art-deco style of the sets designed for the film. As in "Doctor X", director Michael Curtiz allows himself to show the influence he received when working in Europe during the years of German expressionism, and gives the film an ominous dark look as Florence gets deeper inside the Wax Museum. While maybe not as visually striking as the Gothic horror of Universal Studios (or Curtiz' own "Doctor X"), the dark atmosphere of "Mystery of the Wax Museum" is still felt in the art-deco walls through the camera of cinematographer Ray Rennahan. Anton Grot's work of art direction is certainly, a highlight of the film, as it truly has a very unique visual style. The use of two-strip Technicolor is superb, adding a lot of emotion to the already atmospheric work of cinematography (the fire scene at the beginning is particularly great). The result is probably the best that was done using this technique.

The cast delivers performances of great quality, although it is of course difficult not to make comparisons with the performances of the better known 50s version. Lionel Atwill offers one of the best and most underrated performances of his career as the sculptor Ivan Igor, and while he lacks the charm that Vincent Price would give to the role, Atwill has a strong presence and dignified stoicism that makes him very believable as the tortured artist, victim of a misfortune that has rendered him unable to do the work he loved. Glenda Farrell's turn as Florence Dempsey is terrific in the classic role of the wisecracking reporter. Her comedic timing and joyful attitude truly elevate her role beyond the typical archetype of murder mysteries. In fact, Farrell manages to overshadow the more famous Fay Wray; who while looking stunningly beautiful in "Mystery of the Wax Museum", lacks the presence that would make her an icon in "King Kong". Granted, her role is probably the weakest and falls between the more interesting roles of Atwill and Farrell.

As written above, it's hard not to make comparisons, but while 1953's "House of Wax" tends to get the upper hand when compared to the original version, "Mystery" is by no means a bad movie, simply a very different one. Perhaps more than other horror films of the same period, "Mystery of the Wax Museum" focuses completely on the mystery aspect of the story, and while it does have its fair share of horrific elements, they are minimal when compared to Universal horror films, not to say the lavish Gothic horror of "House of Wax". True, "Mystery of the Wax Museum" certainly looks dated by today's standards, but the movie has a notorious modernist touch in its production design that makes it a quite interesting piece to look at. This, coupled with the suggestive lines in its dialog and fast wisecracking comedy give the film an edge, making it different than the norm. All in all, Curtiz' "Mystery of the Wax Museum" is a stunning tale of mystery which suffers, simply, of having aged badly.

Nevertheless, that's far from being an impediment for the enjoyment of the film. On the contrary, it allows (perhaps more than any of Universal horror films) to take a look at a 30s horror from a urban perspective. There are no Gothic castles, no somber cemeteries, instead we have a monster from the old world roaming the modern museums and apartment buildings of the new world. Quite a concept. Personally, I find in "House" and "Mystery" the perfect example of what a remake should be: a reinvention, as the two are excellent movies that explore the same story under very different angles. Overshadowed by the legendary Vincent Price film, "Mystery of the Wax Museum" is a very interesting movie that deserves to be rediscovered as a definitive must-see for those interested in horror movies of the 30s.


May 09, 2011

Scaramouche (1952)

"He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad", such is the memorable line that begins Rafael Sabatini's classic novel "Scaramouche". This novel, a tale of adventure and romance set during the French Revolution and dealing with the exploits of a young lawyer who has to become first and actor and later a swordsman, certainly contained every element to become an instant classic of the genre. Published right when the new art of filmmaking was reaching the maturity of its silent era (1921), it didn't took too long for a film adaptation of the novel to appear, and in 1923 the legendary filmmaker Rex Ingram crafted the first version of "Scaramouche" with Ramon Novarro in the title role and a certain closeness to the source material. 29 years later, director George Sidney took the helm of a new version of Sabatini's classic, with Stewart Granger in the title and a greater focus on what's probably the best remembered part of the novel: Scaramouche's swordsmanship. The result: some of the most unforgettable swashbuckling scenes in cinema.

"Scaramouche" begins when Noel, the Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer) is assigned the task of finding "Marcus Brutus", a writer who distributes pamphlets against the aristocracy. In the meantime, young man André Moreau (Stewart Granger) has just discovered that he is the bastard son of the Count of Gravillac, so he decides to go and meet him. On his way, Moreau finds the beautiful Aline (Janet Leigh) and feels attracted to her, only to suffer an awkward moment when he discovers she is his half-sister. The Marquis finds Marcus Brutus, whom is actually Philippe de Valmorin (Richard Anderson), André's best friend. De Maynes challenges Philippe to a duel, but the inexperienced Philippe is no match for the skilled Marquis. Moreau witness this and feels enraged, but he also ends up disarmed. Managing to escape from the Marquis, Moreau finds the comedy troupe in which his beloved Lenore (Eleanor Parker) performs, and decides to hide there as the character Scaramouche. And as Scaramouche, Moreau vows to improve his swordsmanship in order to avenge Philippe.

Adapted to the screen by Ronald Millar and George Froeschel, this version of "Scaramouche" is certainly far from a faithful rendition of the novel, but still, it actually manages to capture the very soul of "Scaramouche". While Sabatini's novel divides Moreau's story in three separate and well defined parts (as lawyer, as actor and as fencer), Millar and Froeschel combine the last two parts and use it as basis for the majority of the film. Surprisingly, it works remarkably well, as the writers manage to always have something happening in Moreau's adventure, while at the same time remaining true to the character's joyful attitude and idealism. Hardcore fans of the novel won't feel disappointed in this aspect, despite the modifications to the plot. The screenplay contains as well situations that in its time were considered risqué (and gave the movie trouble with the censors), and it is commendable how the writers managed to get away with them. It's also worthy to point out the witty dialogs the screenplay has, and showcases the great comedic timing and skill of the writers.

Lavish would be the best word to describe the beautiful and detailed work of set design and art direction that was done in "Scaramouche". The costumes, the decoration, the sets, it all translates perfectly the atmosphere of pulp romance novel that Sabatini's literary works exude. Director George Sidney makes great use of the production values he has, and with the expert eye of seasoned cinematographer Charles Rosher create a thrilling tale of adventure filled with non-stop action, comedy and romance. Sidney's effective balance of this elements helps "Scaramouche" to never lose steam, and his skillful, dynamic narrative translates the witty, literate screenplay to the screen with a vibrant freshness. However, the real highlight of "Scaramouche" is its now legendary climatic duel, a masterpiece of fencing choreography conceived by fencing master Fred Cavens. Having staged most of the greatest duels in Hollywood history (1926's "The Black Pirate", 1935's "Captain Blood", 1940's "The Sea Hawk", among others), Cavens made in "Scaramouche" his magnum opus.

Leading the cast is Stewart Granger as André Moreau, the happy-go-lucky, relaxed man who must don the mask and cape of Scaramouche in order to hide while his fencing skills improve. Granger has a lot of presence, and manages to transmit the charm and smoothness his character requires. However, Granger is far from being a one-note only buffoon, as he also handles nicely the dramatic scenes. All in all, an underrated lead actor that should get more recognition. Nevertheless, "Scaramouche" wouldn't be the same without Mel Ferrer, as the sadistic, yet chivalrous Marquis de Maynes. With his sophisticated air and touch of perverse maliciousness, Ferrer creates a powerful villain that can be both honestly sympathetic and irremediably hateful at the same time. Janet Leigh adds beauty and charm to her character, the sweet damsel Aline de Gravillac. However, it is Eleanor Parker whom shines the most, as the strong willed Lenore, a character that allows her to showcase her great skill for romantic comedy.

A wild ride filled with swashbuckling action and adventure, "Scaramouche" may not be as famous as the films with Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn but, while it may lack the epic artistry of those films, "Scaramouche" it's definitely in the same league in terms of thrilling fencing action and overall pure entertainment. As written above, major changes were done in the adaptation to film, so those expecting a faithful rendition of Sabatini's novel may find this "Scaramouche" a tad simplified or diluted. However, that doesn't mean that Sidney's film is a different kind of beast, as the soul and essence of Sabatini's legendary character are still intact. Certainly, there is now a greater emphasis on action and comedy, that some characters are now missing and that the drama has been toned down (not to mention that the plot twists were considerably simplified); but in the end, it all feels in the end a simpler, yet more concise narrative. It could be said that "Scaramouche" is classic 50s Hollywood fluff, but it's Hollywood of great class and quality.

The film version of "Scaramouche", like Sabatini's novel that makes its source, is far from being a redefining work of its genre; it doesn't attempt to reinvent the swashbuckling film, nor to create a grandiose work of art. It's only goal is to deliver the best of everything that has made the genre fun. And it achieves this goal perfectly. With its remarkably witty dialogs, non-stop thrilling action sequences, fun screwball comedy and one of the greatest fencing duels captured on film, "Scaramouche" remains true to the spirit of the novel that inspired it and delivers first class entertainment. The gift of laughter that was one of Scaramouche's most noticeable traits, shines intact in George Sidney's version of the classic novel.


May 04, 2011

Scream 4 (2011)

During the first half of the 90s, American horror genre found itself in a slow yet constant process of degradation, wearing itself out with an excessive regurgitation of the themes and plots of the previous decade. The slasher film, which had reigned supreme in the 80s, by the 90s it was reaching the limits of parody after cheap sequels and predictable plots. And curiously, it was parody what essentially saved the genre in 1996, when scriptwriter Kevin Williamson teamed up with filmmaker Wes Craven to produce "Scream", a post-modernist mix of ironic black comedy and graphic violent horror that referenced the history of the horror genre. "Scream" was a huge success and began a renaissance of the American horror. 15 years and two sequels later, Craven and Williamson got together again to resurrect Ghostface and the Woodsboro murders, and once again make an ironic comment about the current state of American horror films, the new multitude of sequels released, and the recent wave of remakes, reboots and "reimaginings".

"Scream 4" begins on the fifteenth anniversary of the original Woodsboro massacre, with the murders of two high school students (Aimee Teegarden and Brittany Robertson). The brutal killings coincide with the return of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) to Woodsboro, in order to promote her book. Being in charge of the case, Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) asks Sidney to remain in town as she becomes a suspect when crime related evidence is found in her car. However, this is just a taunt by a new Ghostface, who now is not only after Sidney, but also after her young cousin Jill (Emma Roberts). In the meantime, Gale Weathers Riley (Courtney Cox), decides to use the new Woodsboro murders to resurrect her career in journalism, feeling stuck as the wife of a small town sheriff. Gale contacts horror fans Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin), looking for clues about the killer's modus operandi. Robbie and Charlie are convinced that the killer is following the new rules of horror films and is basically remaking the original Woodsboro murders.

The screenplay for "Scream 4" was chiefly written by Kevin Williamson, although an uncredited Ehren Kruger took over for rewrites. Still, "Scream 4" manages to recapture the wit and irony of the first part of the series, balancing effectively the elements of horror, mystery and comedy in a much better way than the bland "Scream 3" (an installment that perhaps took itself too seriously for its own good). The plot twists are plenty, and manage to keep things going at a nice rhythm while remaining true to the slasher formula and paying lovely homage to the horror genre while criticizing the current trends in horror. And this mix of homage and criticism had not worked that well since the original "Scream" (well, "Scream 2" had pretty good moments too). Maybe it's because of how the genre has changed in the last decade, but Williamson's screenplay feels, if not as fresh as the original, at least equally as sharp. As expected, "Scream 4" is pure meta-fiction, and while a tad overdone at times, its self-referential humour works quite well for the most part.

Back in town in Woodsboro is director Wes Craven, who tackles this new venture with his usual technical prowess and domain of the camera. Craven's body of work shows a fascination with modern myths, specially those in small American towns, and so he's right at home in a Woodsboro where the original killings are now deeply rooted in the town's dark mythology. After the poor "My Soul to Take", Craven's handling of suspense is in top form this time, and in "Scream 4" creates quite inventive set pieces in which he masterfully plays with suspense and mystery; toying with the unwritten rules of the slasher sub-genre . His technique may be filled with known tricks and familiar clichés, but Craven's skill lays in putting those clichés to good use, and the film has him displaying this skill at full strength. Instrumental for this is the work of cinematography by Peter Deming (also cinematographer of both "Scream 2" and "Scream 3"), who manages to create the proper atmosphere for the horrors of a small town.

The cast brings back old time regulars of the "Scream" franchise as well as introducing a new generation of characters to the vicious knife of Ghostface. Once again, Neve Campbell returns to Woodsboro as Sidney Prescott, the perennial survivor, whom after years of fighting against the demons of her past, must now face the Ghostface again. Campbell has talent, and certainly knows her character to a tee, although the film doesn't give her enough screen time to let it shine again, as the focus seems changed to the new generation. As her cousin Jill, Emma Roberts is more than adequate, having a strong presence that sets her apart from Sidney's vulnerability. A nice surprise is Courtney Cox, with her character having an interesting development that allows her to show a nicely restrained force in her performance. David Arquette is equally good, showing maturity without forgetting the fun goofiness of his old character. Erik Knudsen, Hayden Panettiere and Marley Shelton are also nice additions to the cast, with Shelton's comedic timing being a highlight of the film.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the film is that effective, and particularly poor are the performances of Nico Tortorella and Rory Culkin, as both seem to be sleepwalking through the film. However, a bigger problem is perhaps "Scream"'s own status as a classic from the 90s. It's hard not to compare (specially when the topic are remakes), and the comparison is not beneficial for this fourth chapter. What hurts the film the most is perhaps that lack of the freshness and vibrant energy of the original. Williamson and Craven are playing in familiar ground, and while this enhances their mastery, it also diminishes how groundbreaking they could be. 15 years don't go in vain, and ironic post-modernism is far from being original. As in part 3, there are times when it could be felt that the "Scream" series has turned into the same thing it criticized in the beginning. Fortunately (and unlike part 3), those moments aren't frequent, and in the end, the film's greatest sin is that its self-referential focus makes it more a film for "Scream" fans than for horror fans in general.

But well, even that's not that much of a bad thing. In fact, it could be said that "Scream 4" offers what the previous installment lacked: a proper conclusion for a horror film. Flawed perhaps, but satisfying indeed. Unlike the original "Scream", maybe this fourth installment will not redefine the rules of horror (at best it'll make fun of them), but it still serves as a reminder of what horror films are about. Beyond the shocking gore, the graphic violence and the outlandish plot twists, the horror genre it's supposed to be fun. It's supposed to be thrilling. And "Scream 4" is exactly that, a thrilling fun movie that once again asks us that old question of life or death: what is your favourite scary movie?


May 02, 2011

Ukikusa (1959)

 In Japanese, "floating weeds" is a nickname used to metaphorically describe itinerant livelihoods, more specifically, to describe itinerant actors. Troupes traveling through the country with no place to call home, are like weeds floating on the water, moving without following any specific direction. Japanese filmmaker Yasujirô Ozu used this metaphor in 1934 to title one of the most important films in his career: "Ukikusa monogatari" ("A Story of Floating Weeds"), a family drama involving itinerant actors which defined many of his trademarks and essentially marked the maturing of his particular style. It also became one of his most successful films of his pre-war era. 25 years later, Ozu found himself with the chance of making a film of his choice for Daiei Studios, and so, his chosen project for Daiei was a remake of his own 1934 classic "Ukikusa monogatari". Naming it simply as "Ukikusa" ("Floating Weeds"), Yasujirô Ozu revisited his earlier classic after 25 years of social changes, style maturity and life experiences.

"Ukikusa" begins with the arrival of a troupe of itinerant actors to a seaside town during an extremely hot summer. The troupe's lead actor and owner Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura) has a very special reason to visit this town: his former lover Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) lives there, as well as their son Kiyoshi (Ayako Wakao). It's been 12 years since Komajuro's last visit, and now Kiyoshi is a grown-up man working at the post office with the dream of saving enough to go to college. Kiyoshi doesn't know that Komajuro is his father, as the old actor has always posed as his uncle, ashamed of his status as an itinerant actor. Komajuro begins to spend time with Kiyoshi, even when the attendance to their kabuki act is pretty poor. Sumiko (Machiko Kyô), the lead actress and Komajuro's new mistress, begins to suspect that Komajuro is up to something, and when he discovers that he is visiting his former mistress, she becomes jealous and confronts Komajuro about it. Komajuro decides to break up with her, but the enraged Sumiko conceives a plan to take revenge on Kiyoshi.

Written by director Ozu himself along regular collaborator Kôgo Noda, "Ukikusa" focuses chiefly on the intimate family drama triggered by Sumiko's discovery of Komajuro's son. Lies, jealousy and love are the main themes, which could give the notion that "Ukikusa" is nothing more than a conventional and lachrymose melodrama. However, there is more in the story than what seems at first sight, as it is also a character study about the aging itinerant actor Komajuro. Strict and possessive, yet well intentioned and profoundly human, it is a character full of contradictions that unnecessarily has complicated his own life with each lie he has told to Kiyoshi. Komajuro has played Kiyoshi's uncle for many years, in what ironically seems to had been his best role through his mediocre career as an actor, and the effects of this acts further complicate his goal of leaving the road. And like Komajuro, the characters are what make "Ukikusa" different to typical melodramas, as in Ozu's cinema what matters is not what the characters do, but what they feel, think and believe.

In essence, what matters is what the characters live, what they experience intimately in their relationships with each other; and to take the audience to this intimacy, Ozu places his camera right in the middle of the action. In the original "Ukikusa monogatari", Ozu's distinctive style was blooming; in this remake, his style has reached full maturity. Everything is set up to immerse the audience into the character's intimate world. With the placing of his camera, its static positioning and the centering of the actors during dialog scenes; Ozu forces us to stare almost straight to the characters and discover them, as if they were old acquaintances, old friends. It's worth to point out Kazuo Miyagawa's masterful work of cinematography, which creates some of the most beautiful images with his brilliant use of colour and lighting. It's interesting to see the legendary Miyagawa, noted for his tracking shots, working with the classic static compositions of Ozu. The result captures perfectly the images of daily life and makes them transcend into beautiful works of art.

As expected in a drama of such intensity as this, the performances by the cast are instrumental part in the success of the film, and in "Ukikasu", the actors make for the most part a remarkable job in this aspect. Actor Ganjiro Nakamura, as the film's de facto protagonist, creates a powerful and very human portrait of the aging itinerant actor Komajuro. In a complex role that can be both sympathetic and hateful at the same time, Nakamura makes a wonderful job in capturing the many faces of Komajuro Arashi. An equally powerful performance is that of the beautiful Machiko Kyô, who plays Komajuro's current mistress Sumiko. Certainly, her role is considerably smaller (more details about Sumiko in the screenplay would had been appreciated), but her talents exploit every frame she is in, particularly in the scene of the confrontation in the pouring rain. Actress Haruko Sugimura, who plays Oyoshi is more restrained, perhaps a bit too restrained, but this passive subtlety adds a nice contrast to Kyô's explosive Sumiko.

Actor Hiroshi Kawaguchi, who plays Komajuro's son Kiyoshi, is unfortunately the cast's weakest link, appearing wooden and stiff, and well below the high standard set by the rest of the main cast. The other cast members are pretty effective, and specially funny are the three actors played by Haruo Tanaka, Yosuke Irie and Kôji Mitsui (whom incidentally, played the actor's son in the original "Ukikasu monogatari"). All in all, "Ukikasu" is a beautiful display of the maturity of Ozu's style tackling a more conventional (more traditional perhaps) family drama than his usual. With a calm rhythm, beautiful visual compositions, and a subtle, very intimate narrative style, Ozu crafts his drama slowly, focusing not on unfolding the story, but on letting his characters breath and grow in the screen. The powerful, colorful images captured by Miyagawa's camera enhance the beauty of common daily life and serve as the words of Ozu's visual poetry, and this is probably what could summarize "Ukikasu", and perhaps Ozu's cinema in general: the poetry of daily life.

Slow and calm, Yasujirô Ozu's cinema may be an acquired taste, with his very Japanese style and that, in Akira Kurosawa's words, "dignified severity" that permeates his films. However, "Ukikusa" is a very rewarding film, and transmits a sense of intimacy with the characters that, rather than voyeuristic, it's more contemplative. Perhaps Ozu felt that there was room for improvement (like Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 and 1956 versions of "The Man Who Knew Too Much"), perhaps he wanted to make a final statement of his style using the film that began to define it, or perhaps he simply liked this story of floating weeds so much he just had to do it again; whatever the reason was for this remake, the result is an interesting showcase of Yasujirô Ozu's lyricism, and a powerful display of his full technique.