Tuesday, May 28, 2013

DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS

Gordon Flemyng, 1965
Starring: Peter Cushing, Roberta Tovey, Jennie Linden

Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965), the first Doctor Who film and the first color appearance of the Doctor, has been released on Blu-ray by Studio Canal to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the beloved sci-fi adventure show, which first aired on the BBC in 1963. This is also the hundred year anniversary of famed actor Peter Cushing’s birth, who stars here as the first non-canon Doctor. What does non-canon mean? Since the show first began with William Hartnell starring as the intelligent, if somewhat abrasive humanoid alien known as the Doctor, to date there have been eleven different actors appearing as the Doctor due to his ability to regenerate. 

Peter Cushing is not considered part of that pantheon because his character, known as Doctor Who, bears some things in common with the Doctor of the television show, such as his love of science, travel, and adventure, but Cushing’s Doctor is a human, not an alien, whose surname happens to be Who. Dr. Who and the Daleks is not an official Doctor Who film. Rather it was an attempt by British studio Amicus continue competing with Hammer Studios. The two studios often ran neck to neck with horror films and adventure movies, and this was Amicus’s attempt to compete with Hammer’s more family-friendly pirate and dinosaur-themed adventure films. Other than an intelligent, science-oriented character named Doctor Who, the villainous Daleks, and the Doctor’s T.AR.D.I.S. time machine, Dr. Who and the Daleks bears almost no relationship to the show. 

Co-written by Amicus founder Milton Subotsky and Doctor Who scribe and Dalek creator Terry Nation, Dr. Who and the Daleks was an attempt to cash in on Dalekmania, the Dalek fever that swept Britain during the early ‘60s. A scientist named Doctor Who (Cushing) invents a police box-shaped time machine known as the T.A.R.D.I.S. He shows the machine to his two granddaughters, Susan (Roberta Tovey) and Barbara (Jennie Linden), and to Barbara’s clumsy boyfriend Ian (Roy Castle). Ian trips and accidentally activates the machine, sending them light years away to a strange, hostile planet occupied by Daleks, militant robots determined to take over the world. The Daleks have also enslaved a peaceful, humanoid race, the Thals. Doctor Who and his family work with the Thals to free themselves from the diabolical snare of the Daleks and from potential radiation poisoning. 

Though a loose, almost lazy attempt is made, none of the other characters from the show are reprised and die-hard Doctor Who fans are likely to be very disappointed by the changes. Cushing is wonderful in anything and everything, as far as I’m concerned, but compared to William Hartnell, he lacks the menace, power, and drive that made the Doctor a formidable opponent. Cushing certainly played roles like this in his career, such as Van Helsing, so I take this more as a fault of the writing than the performer. Cushing’s Doctor Who is a spacey older gentleman who bumbles his way into adventure and barely bumbles back out with the help of his family, making it seem like this film was meant for a somewhat different (and younger) crowd than Doctor Who. 

Certain audiences will find plenty to love here, though, as the film is fun, colorful, over the top, and packed with amazing scenery. Amicus certainly spared no expense on the set, which was shot in Technicolor and looks simply incredible. From the Dalek city to the petrified jungle, the film seems to have had some influence on later sci-fi film sets, namely the almost psychedelic plastic-coated Dalek set. This is definitely a film for kids or adults who can easily slip into what I like to call “kid brain.” It’s definitely silly in parts and will probably appeal more to fans of Flash Gordon than Doctor Who

Even though the Daleks are present, this film lacks any real sense of danger or suspense, and the Daleks are likely to disappoint hardcore fans. The slight redesigns look great, but the Daleks are absolutely not frightening. They only kill one person throughout the film and they never say “Exterminate!” Though other characters also banish any sense of  urgency. Roy Castle is the awkward comic relief and the Doctor’s only competent companion is his young granddaughter, played charmingly by Roberta Tovey. Barrie Ingham provides some unintentional comedy as the Thal leader, but he is also delightful.

Released in a 1080p resolution and 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Doctor Who and the Daleks has been digitally remastered and presented in HD and on Blu-ray for the first time. Though the print still appears undeniably aged, the Technicolor looks wonderful and the otherworldly, fantasy elements of the set look fantastic here. The bold colors and imaginative set pieces are one of the strongest reasons to see this film and they look better here than they probably ever have. 

There are a number of nice extras created just for this release. There’s a very entertaining and informative audio commentary track with female stars Roberta Tovey and Jenny Linden. A very enjoyable documentary about the Daleks, Dalekmania, is included, as is a feature about the restoration work done on Doctor Who and the Daleks. There are also a few new, albeit short interviews, though none of these can compare to the commentary track with Tovey and Linden. 

Avoid Doctor Who and the Daleks if you’re a die-hard Doctor fan or if you’re looking for an introduction to the series. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of British adventure films and love Peter Cushing, it comes recommended for the sheer fun factor. Dr. Who and the Daleks was followed by a less successful sequel, Daleks — Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D., which also starred Cushing and was released on Blu-ray at the same time by Studio Canal. Be forewarned that these are both region B Blu-ray releases and U.S. fans can only watch them with a region B or multi-region Blu-ray player. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

GRAPES OF DEATH

Jean Rollin, 1978
Starring: Marie-Georges Pascal, Felix Marten, Serge Marquand

Alongside Night of the Hunted, Kino Lorber and Redemption recently released Jean Rollin’s Les Raisins de la mort aka The Grapes of Death (1978) on Blu-ray as part of their ongoing Rollin series. One of Rollin’s most popular and accessible films, here he diverted from his series of surreal vampire erotica movies for this moody, atmospheric take on the zombie subgenre. 

Like many of Rollin’s films, Grapes of Death follows a loose plot. A young girl, Elizabeth, is traveling by train through the French countryside, but she and her friend are attacked by a strange, diseased figure. Her friend is killed and she flees through the country, desperate to find help. It turns out people are rotting and going insane after drinking wine made from grapes contaminated by a deadly pesticide. She encounters death-by-pitchfork, explosions, fires, homicidal villagers and a young blind girl who is a likely influence on the blind character, Emily, in Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond

Though overall I would classify Rollin’s work as an acquired taste, it is undeniable that he excels at atmosphere and visual power. Grapes of Death is no exception and the French countryside, shot by Claude Becognee, is at once dreamlike, peaceful, and ripe with decay, providing a wonderful juxtaposition for the moments of violence, gore, and oozing sores. This is one of his most overtly violent films and has some of the best effects of his career, including some truly stomach churning scenes. Rollin approaches zombie mythology differently than any director working at the time and it is unfair to directly label this a zombie movie. Perhaps the only film I can compare this to is Romero’s The Crazies and anyone hoping for a moody French version of Night of the Living Dead or Zombie is going to be sorely disappointed. Though Rollin made a real zombie film, Zombie Lake, this is a much more successful effort, probably because it intentionally subverts genre expectations. 

There are nice performances from lovely lead actress Marie-Georges Pascal and from regular Rollin collaborator Brigitte Lahaie, who has a small part where she predictably though somewhat randomly sheds her clothes. This is one of Rollin’s least erotic films, but also one of his most effective. It really benefits from a more robust budget than Rollin typically had to work with and though it is so thematically different from his other work, this is would be a good introduction for Rollin newbies. Despite the lack of sexy vampires or overt surrealism, there are definitely some similarities to his other works. For example, Rollin’s films never follow a concrete plot and this is no exception. At times this feels more like a survival film, as it follows Elizabeth throughout the countryside, desperate to escape the oozing, zombie-like figures running rampant. Grapes of Death also packs in more suspense than most of his catalogue.

Grapes of Death is in line with Kino and Redemption’s other Blu-ray releases in their Jean Rollin series. Mastered from the original 35mm negative, the AVC encoded 1980p high definition transfer is framed at 1.66.1 and hasn’t undergone any major restoration. While the print looks fantastic compared to previous versions, there is some grain, scratches, spots, and other signs of age and wear. Though the colors pop and detail is better than ever, there is simply no way to fix the handful of out of focus shots. Fortunately any dark or night time scenes are significantly improved over the previous DVD and despite some issues, Kino did an admirable job cleaning up the print. Personally I think the original print damage adds a certain amount of charm and films from this period suffer if they are overly restored. 

As with all their Rollin releases, the Kino disc contains a few nice extras. Beginning with a two minute from Rollin himself discussing Grapes of Death and how it differs from his larger body of work, there is also a wonderful 49-minute interview with the director, conducted at the Fantasia Film Festival in 2007. A trailer for Grapes of Death and several other films in the Kino Rollin series are included. There is also a booklet included with the Blu-ray featuring a lengthy essay from Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas about Grapes of Death and one of Rollin’s most obscure films, Night of the Hunted, which was released on Blu-ray at the same time. 

Grapes of Death is by no means a perfect film and suffers from a lackluster plot and some overwrought political subtext. Though the pace is quick (for a Rollin film), the twist ending is rushed too much. There is still plenty here to please Rollin fans or anyone else interested in weird, subversive European horror. With the overwhelming amount of zombie films and television shows re-released, remade, and produced in recent years, it is always worth it to go back and visit unique, hidden gems that shuffle to the beat of their own undead drummers. Kino, as always, did an excellent job cleaning up the film and their joint release with Redemption comes recommended. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

NIGHT OF THE HUNTED

Jean Rollin (1980)
Starring:  Brigitte Lahaie, Vincent Gardère, Dominique Journet

Almost more sci-fi than horror, Jean Rollin’s La Nuit des Traquées aka Night of the Hunted is one of the esoteric director’s most difficult films, but it has recently been rescued from obscurity and released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber and Redemption. This is part of Kino and Redemption’s ongoing Blu-ray Rollin series, which includes films like Fascination, Two Orphan Vampires, The Living Dead Girl and more. Night of the Hunted is being released alongside Rollin’s superior living dead masterpiece, The Grapes of Death. Overall this is an unremarkable but decent release of one of Rollin’s most obtuse and least popular films, but it should please fans of Eurohorror that aren’t interested in the director’s surreal, erotic vampire output.

French porn actress and Rollin regular Brigitte Lahaie stars as Elizabeth, an amnesiac woman found wandering down the road by a young man, Richard. He takes her home and soon, they become romantically involved, but she disappears again as her amnesia grows worse. It turns out that she has a psychological condition, and therefore is being studied, cared for and imprisoned in a makeshift hospital along with a number of other people similar to her. From there, she struggles to remember her identity and escape from the hospital again before everything fades away completely.

Brigitte Lahaie is definitely the film’s strongest and most compelling performer, and she deserves more recognition for her acting talents. She is primarily known for her explicit roles and Rollin makes use of this; Lahaie is regularly naked and/or performing sex acts during the film. Sadly, not even her strong performance and gorgeous visage can save the arduous, lengthy, and somewhat dizzying sex scenes that seem to go on forever. The hardcore scenes were presumably included only to pad the running time of this very short production, but ultimately wind up feeling pointless and exploitative. The shots of violence are similarly jarring and, for probably the first time ever, I’m going to have to admit that I think the film would be stronger with a more developed script and less sex and violence. The violence is occasionally spectacular, with moments of practical, effect-heavy gore, but it is mostly wasted on a film that is too cerebral and dreamlike to benefit from giallo-like scenes, such as a woman committing suicide by jabbing scissors into her eyes.

Though the atmosphere is wonderful, there is barely any plot; many scenes simply make no sense, and the main characters are blank-eyed and spaced out for most of the film. Night of the Hunted is certainly full of potential, but it fails to really hit its mark. The ambiguity and frequent lack of tension can be distracting to the less patient viewer, though the pace picks up in the third act, resulting in a powerful final moment.

Made in 1980, during one of Rollin’s longest periods of financial disaster and creative confusion, Night of the Hunted is unlike any of his other works. Though the extremely low-budget is somewhat to the film’s detriment, Rollin makes the most of his locations and depicts a futuristic, isolated wasteland version of Paris. Unfortunately many of the scenes take place in various nondescript apartments, and it is clear that Rollin was severely limited by his nonexistent budget. A lot of hardcore Rollin fans find the film frustrating, partly because it (and some of his other early ‘80s films) veer so far from the fantastic, erotic, and surreal territory covered in his most classic and identifiable works.

The Redemption/Kino restoration is on par with the rest of their Rollin series and is AVC encoded with 1080p high definition and 1.66.1 framing. This release was mastered from the original 35mm negative, though it hasn’t been too intensely restored, as is Kino’s custom. The print looks better than it ever has, though the age damage and quality of the negative allows some of the original grain and imperfections to show through. Details and colors pop, which is saying a lot because most people were likely introduced to the film the same way I was: on a blurry, washed out, low-definition VHS transfer. The available audio is an LPCM mono track in French, the film’s original language, with optional English subtitles. The track is basic, but sounds decent and is mixed well with clear dialogue and only a little hiss.

There are a limited number of extras. There is a two minute introduction from Rollin and a few trailers from Kino and Redemption’s Rollin series, including one for Night of the Hunted. Rollin also gives a short, two-minute interview about the film’s history and very brief production time. Two deleted sex scenes are included; one is an alternate version to what appears in the film and the other is completely new. A nice, full color booklet is included, featuring a lovely essay from Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas about this film and the superior Grapes of Death.

Night of the Hunted is certainly an acquired taste. I hated it the first time I saw it and it is easily Rollin’s most divisive film, but there are hidden treasures that make it worth seeking out for fans of weird ‘80s Eurohorror. At its finest, the film is full of anxiety and paranoia. Utterly unlike the rest of Rollin’s catalogue, this unsettling work is reminiscent of the early films of David Cronenberg and also bears a certain kinship to David Lynch’s explorations of memory and identity. The Kino Blu-ray is definitely worth picking up for Rollin completists and is at least worth a viewing for genre fans simply as an oddity.

Friday, May 10, 2013

HOUSE OF DRACULA


Erle C. Kenton, 1945
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr, John Carradine, Martha O’Driscoll, Lionel Atwill, Onslow Stevens

This weird, campy film should probably be retitled Monsterpalooza, as it’s chock full of classic Universal beasties. And then some. It is actually unrelated to Dracula or any of its sequels. House of Dracula is really part of Universal’s “Monster rally” films, which began with Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), continued with House of Frankenstein (1944), and was concluded with House of Dracula. All these films include a mash up of Universal’s classic monsters facing off against one another, as well as handful of Universal’s popular horror themes like evil scientists and mad doctors. House of Dracula concerns the adventures of Dr. Edelman and his encounters with the supernatural.

Dracula (a sadly dull John Carradine) is incognito as the Baron Latos and knocks on Dr. Edelman’s door and begs for help. OK, he doesn’t really knock. At five in the morning he flies into the good doctor’s house as a bat, transforms and demands to be taken down the basement. The doctor doesn’t believe the supernatural elements of his story, but agrees to help him with his “curse.” While he is helping Dracula, Curse #2, in the Lon Chaney, Jr. sized form of Larry Talbot, also demands help for his furry problem. Dr. Edelman agrees to help him too, but is convinced, as he was with Dracula, that Talbot’s ailment has to do with psychiatry rather than the supernatural.

Eventually the doctor saves Talbot with a medicine made from spores that he has been cultivating to save his beautiful, but unfortunately hunchbacked assistant(?!?). Meanwhile, Dracula gets out of hand and tries to seduce and transform his other assistant, Miliza. Dr. Edelman destroys him... almost in time. Though Dracula doesn’t harm anyone, the blood transfusions the doctor has given Dracula have infected the doctor’s blood. But instead of turning into a vampire, Edelman randomly transforms into a cross between mad doctor and murderous ghoul.

Oh, did I mention that earlier in the film they found the undead corpse of Frankenstein’s monster? When the doctor makes his maniacal transformation, he manages to reignite the spark in the monster’s brain. Can Dr. Edelman survive his mad creation, murderous visions from a dead Dracula, his growing instincts to kill, good Samaritan Larry Talbot, and a rampaging mass of angry townspeople? I guess you’re just going to have to watch it to find out.

Unsurprisingly, this film has a connection with a lot of other Universal horror films from the period. Director Erle C. Kenton also helmed House of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and horror classic Island of Lost Souls (1932). John Carradine appeared (although uncredited) in early Universal films like The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and in later movies such as Captive Wild Woman (1943), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and House of Frankenstein. Onslow Stevens is great as Dr. Edelman and also appeared in Secret of the Blue Room (1933), Paramount’s The Monster and the Girl (1941), and Them! (1954). 
Lionel Atwill basically reprises his role as the police inspector from Son of Frankenstein (1939) and he appeared in many other horror films from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Glenn Strange reprised his role as Frankenstein’s monster from House of Frankenstein. He would don the make up once more for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), where he again acted alongside Lon Chaney, Jr. House of Dracula also contains clips of Frankenstein’s monster from Bride of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein

If you want to watch it, you’re going to have to buy, borrow or steal Dracula: The Legacy Collection. It also contains Dracula, the Spanish-language Drácula, Dracula’s Daughter, and Son of Dracula. There are two discs, though one is annoyingly double-sided. There are a fair amount of special features, though they all only deal with the original Dracula. The inclusion of House of Dracula makes The Legacy Collection well worth purchasing, though it would be nice to see all three of the “Monster Rally” films in one collection. As of now, House of Dracula is only available in the Legacy Collection. Though it is an obscure entry in Universal’s horror canon, it is campy, bizarre, and entertaining enough to grab your attention for its short, 67 minute run time. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

SON OF DRACULA


Robert Siodmak, 1943
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr, Louise Allbritton, Evelyn Ankers, Robert Paige, and Frank Craven

What a bizarre film. The Caldwell sisters, Kay and Claire, await the arrival of Kay’s European visitor, Count Alucard, to their plantation home in Louisiana. To put it mildly, Kay is a very strange girl. She is obsessed with the occult and the supernatural and has apparently brought a gypsy woman back from her travels to Europe, and given an open invitation to the mysterious Count Alucard to pay her an extended visit. The Count doesn't arrive when expected and  though everyone thinks he missed his train and will be late, he has actually arrived on schedule, secretly, to kill the girls’ father. 

Oddly, this is not mentioned again or further explored and is indicative of the film’s reliance on rapidly jumping from scene to scene, often with the result of leaving behind some major plot holes. Did Kay (Louise Allbritton) intend for this to happen? The will is read and dear old dad has left all the money to Claire (played by Evelyn Ankers who starred in a number of Universal horror films, many with Lon Chaney, Jr.), but the house, Dark Oaks, to Kay. Kay begins seeing Alucard in secret, eventually renouncing her long-time fiancé Frank to marry the Count. It seems he has promised her a different kind of life, one where death will not part them. But Kay has a plan. She admits that she doesn’t love the Count, she merely wants his undead gift. She plans to bestow this on Frank, who she will then spend eternity with. Will Frank go with the plan, kill the Count, and receive Kay’s kiss? Will he have a choice in the matter?

Oddly, this film has echoes of the first Dracula sequel, Dracula’s Daughter. Like the protagonist of that film, the vampire Countess Zaleska, Kay is a beautiful, independent, and strange female villain. In an odd mirror image of Zaleska, who seeks out normality and humanity, Kay becomes obsessed with the idea of escaping normal life for immortality, despite the risk and cost. Her plan is, actually, quite perverse. She seduces and marries a non-human, lets him kill her and turn her into a member of the undead and then plans to kill him. She is also so convinced she should share this with her fiancé regardless of his feelings on the matter. Though Alucard is kind of a dud, Kay is a compelling, though completely unsympathetic villain.

Alucard, the "Son of Dracula," is another bizarre character. He is supposedly foreign, but Lon Chaney, Jr. could not speak in a more American accent if he tried. He is not sexy or suave and fortunately doesn’t have much dialogue. Chaney, Jr. is much more effectively used in a film like The Wolfman, where he plays a totally different kind of monster. Most of the time in Son of Dracula he speaks slowly and politely and seems to be a well mannered man with the barest hint of violence underneath. His relationship with Kay is never explained and the attraction is somewhat baffling. It is odd that a human woman should be both the willing victim of a vampire as well as his seducer, betrayer, and killer, but Son of Dracula just goes for it. The vampire angle is discovered by, of course, the local doctor, who realizes for some reason that Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards. He calls a Hungarian (in this film the Dracula family is from Hungary) professor and vampire expert to Louisiana to help with the case. The two men guess/figure out that Alucard is not the original Dracula, but is most likely a descendant. 

This was the first Universal film from German director Robert Siodmak (The Spiral Staircase, The Killers) and it was written by his brother, celebrated horror screenwriter Curt Siodmak (The Wolfman, The Invisible Man Returns, Earth vs. the Flying Saucer, and many more). This is notable in vampire film mythology for being the first film to depict a vampire transforming into a bat on screen. 

Son of Dracula absolutely boggles my mind. Though it is entertaining, the bizarre plot elements are kind of confusing and the ending is completely unexpected. In fact, while watching Son of Dracula, I had no idea what was going to happen next, which is both a strength and weakness. Compared to the contemporary idea of a sequel - reviving the same monster or villain to rehash the same plot again and again - it is somewhat refreshing and contains a surprising number of new ideas. If you have a hard-on for classic monster films, it comes recommended. If not, I'm not sure why you're reading this blog.

The film is available from Universal as a split-DVD with Dracula’s Daughter or in the Dracula: The Legacy Collection box set. The set is a must have in any collection and also contains the original Dracula, the Spanish-language DráculaDracula’s Daughter, and House of Dracula. There are two discs, though one is annoyingly double-sided and some issues have been reported. There are a fair amount of special features, though they all only deal with the original Dracula.

Tod Browning (1880 - 1962)


Born Charles Albert Browning, Jr., director Tod Browning left behind a grotesque, carnivalesque film legacy that helped spawn the American horror genre. Though he was also an actor and a screenwriter with a lengthy, diverse career that spanned silent film and early talkies, Browning is primarily known for Dracula (1931), Freaks (1932), and an ten film collaboration with actor Lon Chaney that culminated in The Unknown (1927). 

Browning’s career in the performing arts began when he ran away from home as a teenager, changed his name to Tod, and joined a traveling carnival. Though he did stints as a barker, clown, actor, dancer, and magician, among other things, his first act was a popular scam known as the Living Hypnotic Corpse, where he would be buried alive for a day (sometimes two) inside a secretly ventilated coffin. In addition to sideshows, carnivals, and circuses, he also did some work in vaudeville and became familiar with a number of acts, including magician’s escape tricks. The circus was also a major player in his films, beginning as early as 1916 with Puppets, a film where Browning used actors to stand in for harlequin puppets. 

Browning got his start as an actor working with D.W. Griffith, in some of Griffith's silent films including his masterpiece Intolerance, and Browning soon followed Griffith to California. Here he began directing, primarily churning out short films, in addition to acting in almost fifty movies. During this period, in 1915, Browning was in a serious car crash where he suffered numerous injuries and killed one of his passengers, the actor Elmer Booth. Alcohol abuse and related depression was a lifelong issue for the director. Because of the accident, Browning was out of work for two years other than script writing until his feature length debut with Jim Bludso (1917), a melodrama about a heroic riverboat captain.

After his directorial career took off, he soon joined forced with Universal and one of their young producers, Irving Thalberg, who introduced him to Lon Chaney. The first film they made together was The Wicked Darling (1919), where Chaney plays a criminal who brings a young girl into his life of crime, establishing his pattern of starring as a villain and/or antihero. Together Browning and Chaney made ten films together, including The Unholy Three (1925) about criminal circus performers executing a jewel heist, which they remade five years later as Chaney’s only sound film, as well as The Black Bird (1926), The Road to Mandalay (1926), London After Midnight (1927), and The Unknown (1927). This is their finest film together and here Chaney plays an armless knife thrower who falls in love with a young circus performer (Joan Crawford). In nearly all of these, he plays characters who are deformed, handicapped, or mutilated. 

Browning and Chaney were a sort of grotesque dream team and the incredibly versatile and protean character actor is likely the only person who could have brought Browning’s characters to life so enthusiastically and realistically. Chaney played characters that were armless (The Unknown), legless (West of Zanzibar), scarred (Road to Mandalay), and monstrous (the now lost London After Midnight).

Universal allegedly intended them to worth together for Dracula, but Chaney passed away from cancer. At the last minute Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi was hired to play the titular Count, a role he had already performed hundreds of times for the stage. Though Dracula is Browning’s most famous, successful, and iconic film, it is also one of his most controversial due to rumors that Browning didn’t inhabit the director’s chair very often. Allegedly he received assistance from talented cinematographer Karl Freund, who would go on to direct The Mummy (1932) and Peter Lorre-vehicle Mad Love (1935). Though Dracula lacks the elements of revenge, deformity, and criminality in many of Browning’s other films, it still bears his morbid style and, in typical Browning fashion, the primary antagonist is a more fascinating character than any of the protagonists. 

Browning’s masterpiece and the film that lost him his career was Freaks (1932). Olga Baclanova stars as a beautiful but manipulative trapeze artist who marries a circus midget for his money and plans to kill him and run off with the strongman. Though the other circus freaks initially accept her, they soon learn of her devious plan to poison the unwitting midget. They hideously mutilate her, turning her into one of them, the half-woman, half-bird duck girl. Universal was horrified by the film and effectively took away Browning’s creative freedom after this and he retired a few years later. 

He directed a number of other films in addition to Dracula and Freaks that fit in the horror genre or will be of interest to genre fans, such as The Thirteen Chair (1929). Mark of the Vampire (1935) is loose remake of the lost silent film he made with Chaney, London After Midnight, and though it involves Bela Lugosi as part of a creepy vampire couple, it is more mystery than horror. Revenge film The Devil Doll (1936), starring Lionel Barrymore, involves a man who escapes a prison island and gets revenge on those who framed him by shrinking them down to doll-size figures that he controls and manipulates. Browning’s films often have revenge or horror at their core, though he filmed a wide range of genres, including adventure, mystery, melodrama, and crime. He often focused on outsiders and many of his films are set in enclosed communities, such as a gypsy camp, a traveling circus, or the criminal underworld.  

Tod Browning’s influence on early horror cinema is often overlooked - along with gangster and noir films - though he directed the granddaddy of American horror movies, Dracula, which is also the first major studio film in the U.S. to introduce truly supernatural horror. Earlier mystery-horror films, such as Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary, often began with a potentially supernatural premise, but explained the plot elements as being the result of human action. Browning’s obvious interest in and exploration of the grotesque was another, perhaps quieter influence on the developing horror genre. Most of Browning’s main characters are freaks, monsters, criminals, the deformed, and the mutilated. Villains were the stars of his films and were often the most charismatic and developed characters. All his films with Chaney exemplify this, and Dracula is another perfect case. Where Jonathan Harker is one of the primary protagonists in the novel, his role in Browning's film is milquetoast and effectively castrated. If you want to learn more about Browning, I highly recommend the biography Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning by Dracula scholar David Skal and Elias Savada, as well as his creative catalogue. Though many of his silent films are believed to be lost, check out as many of his Chaney collaborations as possible. And obviously, if you've neglected to see Freaks, this is the ideal place to start. 

"One of us... one of us... one of us!"

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

DRACULA'S DAUGHTER


Lambert Hillyer, 1936
Starring: Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Marguerite Churchill, Edward Van Sloan, Gilbert Emery

In the early ‘30s, Universal studios explored a series of undead monsters with Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, resulting in critical and financial acclaim. After a series of mad scientist films - Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Invisible Man, and The Raven - they produced the unexpectedly successful Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, introducing a gruesome yet sympathetic female monster. Though Frankenstein’s monster and Dr. Pretorius, the diabolical scientist, are the true villains of the film, the Monster’s bride paved the way for a more malicious female ghoul. Essentially an attempt to cash in on Bride of Frankenstein’s success, Universal conjured up Dracula’s Daughter, a sequel to Tod Browning’s 1931 classic. Though less critically acclaimed than its sire, the follow up re-imagined vampire genre tropes and blended a variety of cinematic and literary influences. 

Released in 1936, Dracula’s Daughter picks up immediately where its predecessor left off. Discovered in a crypt with the recently staked Count, Von Helsing is arrested for murder. Edward Van Sloan reprises his role as Van Helsing from Dracula and is the only actor from the original film to return. Scotland Yard obviously doesn’t believe he killed a vampire, so he asks his friend, an acclaimed psychiatrist, to be a character witness. Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) was once his student and prepares to defend him, despite many misgivings. Enter Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who steals Dracula’s body with the help of her sinister servant Sandor (Irving Pichel). Claiming to be Dracula’s daughter, she burns his corpse in an elaborate ritual with the intention of breaking the vampiric curse on her soul. 

Unfortunately this proves ineffective and Zaleska resumes her nightly hunt for blood. Soon she meets Garth and convinces him she suffers from a powerful affliction. He agrees to help her and is certain her malady is only psychological. Despite Garth’s help, her blood lust continues and she gives up on a cure. In a last, desperate attempt, Zaleska kidnaps Garth’s assistant, Janet (Marguerite Churchill), and brings her to Transylvania. She lures Garth there and intends to turn him into a vampire. He reluctantly agrees if she will set Janet free, but Sandor shoots Zaleska through the heart with an arrow because she neglected an old promise to transform him. He is shot by the police and Garth and Janet are freed.

Because Dracula’s Daughter was spawned by the success of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, Whale was originally hired as director with much of Dracula’s cast slated to return. In 1936 legendary producers Carl Laemmle and his son Carl Laemmle, Jr., responsible for much of Universal’s early horror output, were removed from Universal for financial issues and the overburdened studio scrapped the original plan for Dracula’s Daughter. Script duties were still given to Garrett Fort (Dracula and Frankenstein), though the role of director passed to Lambert Hillyer (The Invisible Ray and the 1943 Batman). Allegedly Dracula’s Daughter is based on “Dracula’s Guest,” a short story by Bram Stoker that was believed to be the excised prologue from Dracula, though Stoker scholars are now skeptical of this claim. David O. Selznick purchased the rights for MGM, but later sold them to Universal. The plot similarities between Dracula’s Daughter and “Dracula’s Guest” are merely thematic, both revolving around a female vampire subordinate to Dracula. 

Dracula’s Daughter is emotionally bleak, steeped in Gothic atmosphere and full of melancholy in a way its predecessor failed to be. Holden carries the film with a mesmerizing, sympathetic performance, at once alluring and repulsive. The lack of genre cliches provides a fresh take on vampire cinema, one that would resurface later in horror history. This minor masterpiece seems to have had an influence on ‘60s and ‘70s Gothic horror in the British and Italian canons, such as Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy (The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil) and Bava’s satanic witchcraft masterpiece Black Sunday. There are a number of elements in these later films that were presented for the first time in Dracula’s Daughter. Zaleska’s vampirism is portrayed as a blend of madness, female hysteria, sexual dysfunction, and addiction. She is a reluctant vampire, desperate to regain her mortality at any cost. More importantly, this is the cinematic introduction to lesbian vampiric activity. Though she takes both male and female victims, Zaleska prefers young, attractive female victims. 

Dracula’s Daughter is not a perfect film and suffers from large plot holes and ill-placed comedy. The bumbling police officers from the opening are poorly placed and mar the gloomy atmosphere. There is a complete lack of chemistry between Holden and Kruger, complicated by the fact that Kruger was normally cast as a villain and is ill-suited for the role. The chemistry between Kruger and Churchill is even worse, playing out like a failed “battle of the sexes” comedy. Despite its flaws, Dracula’s Daughter is representative of an interesting blend of influences. 

Though there are many deviations, Dracula’s Daughter has a number of similarities to its parent film and source novel. Like Lugosi’s Dracula, Zaleska is an attractive, charming aristocrat from Eastern Europe. She sleeps in a coffin, “never drinks... wine,” and abhors mirrors. She also has a penchant for wearing flowing, dark capes, staring intently and speaking little. Lugosi and Holden both possess the camera, overwhelming the frames with facial close ups, showing a close resemblance between their hypnotic eyes, raven hair and aquiline noses. Though Zaleska’s vampirism is less overt than Dracula’s, she is clearly a blood sucker, leaving puncture wounds on her dead or comatose victims. With the aid of a large moonstone ring, she uses hypnotism to get what she wants. The most obvious inspiration for Zaleska’s character derives from the three vampire women who are commonly referred to as Dracula’s brides, though their role in the novel is more nebulous and they are called sisters. Two of them are dark-haired and bear a close physical resemblance to Dracula. It is inferred that the third, a blonde, is their leader. In conversation with Jonathan Harker, Dracula claims to have loved these women in the past, though whether this is familial or romantic love is unclear. They are attractive, yet repulsive, due to their sexual exuberance and their voracious appetites for blood. In his journal, Jonathan Harker writes that, “There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.”  

The female vampire in Stoker’s story “Dracula Guest” is another obvious inspiration for Zaleska, though no other plot elements are shared between the film and its supposed source material. “Dracula’s Guest” opens with an unidentified Englishman visiting Germany on his way to Transylvania. Ignoring warnings from the locals, he explores an abandoned village on Walpurgis Night. The horse pulling his carriage is scared off and he is forced to walk the long distance back to the hotel alone in heavily falling snow. He takes shelter in some trees, but realizes he is in the middle of a cemetery, near a great tomb. There is a stake driven through the tomb, which belongs to Countess Dolingen of Gratz from Styria. Because of the impending storm, he is forced to take shelter in the mouth of the tomb, where he encounters a beautiful woman with red lips. A storm saves him from this mysteriously threatening woman and he wakes with a wolf on his chest, presumably protecting him from further dangers. 

Though the original novel and filmic version of Dracula play an important formative role in the sequel, there are a number of other, earlier literary influences. Stoker’s fellow Irishman Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla is an obvious inspiration, as are several texts from European fin de siecle literature and horror fiction from the early 1900s. Carmillia is set in the Styrian countryside (the home place of Stoker’s Countess Dolingen). A young lady named Laura meets Carmilla, who comes to stay with Laura and her father due to a carriage accident. The beautiful Carmilla is nocturnal, deeply secretive, possessive of Laura and makes occasional romantic advances towards her friend. Laura begins to have terrible nightmares of a cat-creature biting her chest and her health takes a turn for the worse. It is revealed that Carmilla is responsible and is actually a several hundred year old vampire, Countess Mircalla Karnstein. A small band of men join together to hunt down her tomb and destroy her in the hope that they can save Laura’s life in time. 

Carmilla was the first lesbian vampire and actually pre-dates Dracula by about twenty-five years. Like Stoker’s Lucy, Dolingen, and Zaleska, Carmilla is aristocratic, tall and thin with large, entrancing eyes and full, seductive lips. Carmilla, Lucy, and Dolingen have nocturnal habits and hunt at night. Both Carmilla and Dracula present a subversive, fluid sexuality where gender is distorted and there are links between monstrosity, homosexuality, hypersexuality, and hysteria. 

In addition to Carmilla, Zaleska is likely shaped by several horror stories in the early 1900s that depict tales of sexually aggressive, vampiric female characters that were undoubtedly also inspired by Carmilla, such as the works of women writers like Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Mary Wilkins Freeman. The demonic, sexualized vamp was a relatively popular trope in fin de siecle art and literature. A particular concern at the time was the concept of the New Woman, a financially, sexually, and emotionally independent being. This type of woman rejected concepts of motherhood and family values, which resulted in a number of literary works showing monstrous, sexually motivated female characters. There are French novels from the late 1800s and early 1900s like Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus and The Marquise de Sade and Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony and Salammbô. Artwork from the period also depicts pale, dark-haired female vampires, such as work from Edvard Munch, Henri Martin, Georges de Feure, and Philip Burne-Jones. 

Zaleska’s unhappy plight is suggested to be a combination of disease, addiction and madness, all themes reflect in fin de siecleart. Vampirism was initially linked with depictions of disease in the nineteenth century, namely anemia, porphyria, tuberculosis, plague, and sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis. The latter in particular connects vampirism with the moral and physical decline feared by Victorian society. This subtext was revisited in the late 1980s when a connection between HIV and vampirism was explored in numerous films and books. One of the first authors to do this, Anne Rice, has stated that some of her most important female vampires, such as the villainous Akasha in Queen of the Damned, were inspired by Dracula’s Daughter

Zaleska also has much in common with several of Oscar Wilde’s literary inventions. Like the titular character of his Salomé, she is “like a woman rising from a tomb... She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things.” She is also similar to literary male libertines like the titular character of Wilde’s Dorian Gray, following the sort of “double life” associated with amoral but privileged young men. She keeps a separate apartment as a painting salon in a questionable neighborhood and under an assumed name, which is also where she seduces and feeds on vulnerable young women of lower classes. 

Finally, it is necessary to consider the influence that The Bride of Frankenstein had on Dracula’s Daughter. There are a number of plot similarities between these two female-centric sequels. Frankenstein’s monster strives to be a normal human, which he seeks to do by attaining a mate and gaining social acceptance. Zaleska also seeks to reject her monstrosity and become a normal woman, reinstating family values. Frankenstein’s monster has a diabolical father, Pretorius, who controls and molds him, just as Dracula controls Zaleska from beyond the grave, “possessing” her consciousness. The Monster is ultimately rejected by his potential mate, who has been turned into an undead creature on his behalf. Zaleska nearly persuades Garth to accept her vampiric curse, but fate prevents this. The Bride of Frankenstein includes a gay subtext in the troubled relationship between Pretorius and Henry Frankenstein, while Dracula’s Daughter is much more overt with its homosexual subplot. 

Dracula’s Daughter is a unique combination of influences that represent the best of horror in turn of the century art and literature. The film is an important, but sadly neglected part of the Dracula film canon and helped shaped depictions of future female vampires and vampirism as a symbol for addiction, disease, or psychosis. Fortunately Dracula’s Daughter was made available to horror fans with the release of Dracula: the Legacy Collection set that includes Dracula, the Spanish version of Drácula, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, and House of Dracula

Even after more than seventy years, she still “gives you that weird feeling!”

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

DRÁCULA (Spanish-language, 1931)


George Melford, 1931
Starring: Carlos Villarias, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton, Pablo Alvarez Rubio

When I first saw Drácula, I was fascinated by the film’s production history and wondered how many times in cinema a film had been simultaneously shot in two languages with two different directors and two separate casts, but on the same set? It turns out this happens more than you would think. Universal practiced this a few times in the ‘30s, including on a remake of The Cat and the Canary, The Cat Creeps, where a duplicate Spanish-language version was filmed at night as La Voluntad del muerto with the same director as Drácula, George Melford, and star Lupita Tovar. (It also happened in the ‘60s occasionally with German krimi films, but dual language movies these tended to have overlapping casts and the same director.) 

This somewhat complicated history makes the Spanish-language version of Drácula an interesting experiment and worthy of at least one careful viewing, particularly by fans of Dracula. Shot at night on the same set as Browning’s Dracula, the Spanish Drácula is generally considered to be a sexier and more emotional version of its English language counterpart, supposedly due to its Latin flavor and the advantage of looking at Browning’s film every day. This is an opinion shared by many fans and critics since the film was rediscovered in the ‘70s.

To be honest, I’m not sure if I agree with this. The film is, unavoidably, very similar, so similar that I'm not going to bother providing a synopsis. There is the same plot, almost the same dialogue, the same set and the same cues for the actors. In a way, the fact that this was replicated so closely is kind of astounding. It is an interesting experiment in cinema, but undoubtedly suffers from some glaring flaws. While many films have remakes and sequels, Drácula is one of the few that is almost exactly the same film as its predecessor, if it isn’t fair to refer to Dracula that way.

So how is it actually different? There are four major things. First of all, we have the Count. In her introduction to the film, Lupita Tovar, who plays Eva, the Spanish-language version of Mina, notes how similar Bela Lugosi and Carlos Villarias were. I completely disagree. While they are somewhat alike in appearance, they play completely different Draculas. Villarias has hypnotic, captivating eyes, and he is a much more physically expressive, theatrical Dracula. So physically expressive, that most of the time it comes across as ridiculous and hammy. One of my favorite scenes is in the beginning of the film when Renfield accidentally cuts himself during dinner. Excited by the sight of blood, Dracula leans in for the kill, but sees the crucifix around Renfield’s neck. Instead of recoiling with a look of demonic terror/fury on his face, he simply looks like he’s eating something that tastes TERRIBLE. 

The second difference in Drácula is that this physical exaggeration is mirrored by everyone, particularly when it comes to their facial expressions. Sometimes it almost seems like we're watching a pantomime or a silent film, which is likely to be distracting to modern film viewers who have little familiarity with early cinema and its unique acting techniques. On the other hand, this may delight viewers who find Dracula too talkie and static. The third, very welcome difference is the heightened level of eroticism. There are sexier costumes and more beautiful women, particularly the gorgeous Lupita Tovar. She is at once alluring and innocent and waves away some of the parlor room dust that settled over the English-language Dracula and it female lead, Helen Chandler. Tovar is a fascinating figure. This Mexican actress and beauty wound up marrying Paul Kohner, a producer at Universal and starred in a number of films directed by George Melford, such as East of Borneo (1931), as well as Mexico’s first talkie, Santa (1931), and in a strange crossover she appeared in The Veiled Lady (1929, now lost) with Bela Lugosi. At 102, she is one of the oldest actresses still alive from the silent film era. Director Melford was known for a number of films, including To Have and To Hold (1916), The Sea Wolf (1920), and Rudolf Valentino vehicle The Sheik (1921), in addition to an acting career. 

The final difference, which doesn't seem possible if you watch the original Dracula first, is that Spanish-language version has much more exuberant rubber bats. For example, if you were to play a rubber bat drinking game, I feel certain that it would impossible to get through the entire film without alcohol poisoning. The major reason I don’t like this film as much as the English language Dracula is because it is so over the top in parts. I don’t want to give the impression that it is a bad film. Really, it is nearly the same film, but minus the element (Lugosi) that makes Dracula stand the test of time.

The Spanish-language Drácula is available in Dracula: The Legacy Collection box set, which also contains the original Dracula and its three sequels, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, and House of Dracula. There are two discs, though one is annoyingly double-sided. There are a fair amount of special features, though they all only deal with the original Dracula. There is an original documentary, The Road to Dracula, which is narrated by Carla Laemmle, niece of the great producer. It discusses both the original film and the Spanish version. Not a terribly exciting documentary, but I guess it would be interesting if you are new to Dracula. An introduction by Tovar that provides a quick run down of Drácula’s history is the only extra specifically for the Spanish-language version.

Bela Lugosi (1882 - 1956)


Though there have been many since -- Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Jack Palance, and even Gary Oldman -- there will only be one original Count Dracula. Known the world over for his dark, mesmerizing stare, thick accent, and velvety black cape, Bela Lugosi played the role many times throughout his life and will forever be remembered as the bloodthirsty gentleman from Transylvania, even though he was really from the neighboring Hungary. 

Born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó in Lugos, Austria-Hungary, the iconic actor took his stage name from his hometown, which is now known as Lugoj, Romania. He got his professional start with small roles on the Hungarian stage, though he later claimed to be a major star in his home country. Lugosi was a decorated infantry lieutenant and later captain in the Austro-Hungarian Army during WWI, though shortly after the war he was forced to flee Hungary due to the Hungarian Revolution in 1919. He moved across Europe and finally traveled to a new home in the U.S. He continued acting on stage in Hungarian, German, and phonetic English, and in a handful of silent films until he was cast in Horace Liveright, Hamilton Deane, and John Balderston’s stage adaptation of Dracula on Broadway in 1927. He soon traveled with the production and acted in other plays around the same period. Lugosi got his cinematic start in various silent films throughout the ‘20s, both in Germany and the U.S., though he mostly had bit parts. 

Despite his successful run in the stage play, Lugosi was not initially slated to play Dracula. It is rumored that Universal first intended this to be a collaboration between German Expressionist director Paul Leni and silent film star Lon Chaney. But after both Leni and Chaney passed away from illnesses, Tod Browning was put in the director’s chair and there was a rush to cast the film before shooting began. Lugosi was given the part at the last minute simply because he was cheap, but the role would quickly become unanimous with his brooding stare and unmistakable (and often imitated) accent.

Though Lugosi played Dracula well over a thousand times on stage, beginning in 1927, only two of his performances as the iconic Count were captured on screen: the first time in Dracula and again almost two decades later in the horror-comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Dracula (1931) was his first major film, though he went on to make a series of interesting and acclaimed horror and sci-fi flicks in the ‘30s: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), the first of many movies where Lugosi played a mad scientist working with a homicidal, mutated ape, White Zombie (1932), Island of Lost Souls (1934), The Black Cat (1934), one of the few films where he received equal billing with Boris Karloff and their best work together, Mark of the Vampire (1935), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), and many more. In addition to Dracula, he had parts in some of the other Universal classic monster series, such as the role of the demented and deformed Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and the lycanthropic gypsy in The Wolf Man (1941). 

His career began to take a down turn in the ‘40s, when he was typecast in cheaper and flimsier films, most of which were produced by Monogram Pictures, nicknamed “poverty row” in Hollywood. Some of these films will delight fans of early Universal horror, but many of them were outright ignored during the time, such as Black Friday (1940), The Devil Bat (1940), Invisible Ghost (1940), The Black Cat (1941), The Corpse Vanishes (1942), The Ape Man (1943) and Return of the Ape Man (1944, which features nary an ape), and  Zombies on Broadway (1945). He also appeared in Val Lewton’s excellent Boris Karloff-vehicle The Body Snatcher (1945) as a humble, elderly servant who is killed by Karloff when he attempts to blackmail him. This is a sad, very visual example of how far he had fallen since Dracula. The ‘50s saw a career revival for Lugosi in the form of schlockmeister Ed Wood, who adored Lugosi and cast him in a number of films, including Glen or Glenda (1953) and Bride of the Monster (1955). Some footage of Lugosi was included in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), but he passed away before filming was complete and Wood’s wife’s chiropractor had to stand in for the remainder of the film. 

Lugosi had a romantic, but difficult life. In addition to his five marriages, one of which was broken up by a semi-long term affair with famous silent film actress Clara Bow, he struggled with drug addiction and a series of poor financial decisions. His morphine addiction was caused by a painful back problem that is believed to have come from his time in the war and worsened later in life. His poor financial decisions began when he was cast in Dracula as a last resort and paid $500 per week. He made less money than some of the side actors, a trend that would continue throughout his career in genre films with Universal. He also turned down the role of the monster in Frankenstein, allegedly because he thought the make up would make him unrecognizable. After Boris Karloff rose to fame because of this role, Lugosi was forced to play second fiddle to him for nearly the rest of his career. Somewhat sadly, he did eventually play the role of Frankenstein’s monster in the almost comic sequel and monster mash movie Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943). His strong accent and refusal to don monster make up typecast him and he was stuck in horror films, horror-themed sci-fi movies, and horror comedies. 

Lugosi is undoubtedly beloved by horror fans of all generations. Towards the end of his life, he was supported by a number of fans, some of them celebrities (such as Frank Sinatra, who allegedly paid one of his rehab bills). He became good friends with the then young Forrest J. Ackerman (Famous Monsters of Filmland), who wound up with a lot of Dracula and Lugosi-related props, except, of course, the Dracula cape that Lugosi was buried in. After his heart attack in 1956, he was buried in this cape at the request of his wife and son and, at his funeral, friend and horror actor Peter Lorre famously joked that maybe they should put a stake in his heart just to be on the safe side. 

There are, unsurprisingly, dozens of Lugosi resources. Though there are a number of biographies, I don't believe any of them are definitive. Dracula scholar David J. Skal's Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen is a good place to start. For further online information about Lugosi, I recommend this blog and this heartfelt article from Lost Magazine about Lugosi’s relationship with Forrest Ackerman, though there are tons of sites. Obviously watch as many of his films as you can. This set is a great place to start and this site has a lot of Lugosi movies streaming for free.

Monday, May 6, 2013

DRACULA (1931)


Tod Browning, 1931
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan

Dracula is one of those films that has always hovered on the edge of my consciousness. I grew up watching the original Lugosi film, eating Count Chockula (even though I hate chocolate and am mildly allergic to it, I persisted), collecting various Dracula paraphernalia, and around age 9, first reading Bram Stoker’s novel. I’m not really sure how to write critically about the original film version of Dracula, because I have always accepted it as a filmic milestone, the granddaddy of Western horror films. 

The film is not directly based on Bram Stoker’s novel; instead it is an adaptation of Hamilton Deane’s play, which was the first successful, authorized dramatic adaptation of the novel. (Murnau’s earlier Nosferatu, an unlicensed, loose adaptation, was nearly destroyed because Stoker’s widow Florence had an iron grip on her husband’s work and legacy and was notoriously hard to deal with.) The plot of Dracula is similar to the novel, but with some notable changes. Renfield travels to Romania to do business with Count Dracula. He is placed under the Count’s evil thrall and returns with Dracula via sea voyage. Dracula introduces himself to London society as a mysterious yet well-mannered foreign noble. He soon attraction attention from Lucy Weston and begins a series of nocturnal visits, where he drains her blood. When Lucy dies, her friend Mina Seward becomes Dracula’s newest interest. Her father, Dr. Seward, and her fiancé, John Harker, enlist the aid of Dr. Van Helsing to try and save her from a cold-blooded, demonic fate.

The film deviates from the novel in a variety of ways, mostly in character and set. The basic plot is the same, but like Deane’s play, the film has more of a drawing room pot-boiler feel than the action packed novel. Due to set and budget constraints, the scenes where Dracula and Renfield travel via ship are used from stock footage and the dramatic  concluding chase through Eastern Europe is completely omitted. This is really the only problem with Dracula. It is wonderfully atmospheric, creepy and suggestive, but unfortunately is a bit slow due to the heavy emphasis on dialogue over action. And then there are the fake rubber bats.

Directed by the great Tod Browning with cinematography from the arguably greater Karl Freund (who is rumored to have directed some scenes), Dracula injected fresh blood and a boatload of cash back into Universal Studios. The ailing studio had a small budget for the film, which meant that producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. had to trim down the production, skimping mainly on action and lavish Transylvanian sets. Bela Lugosi, whom modern audiences still think of as the quintessential Dracula, was really an affordable last resort. Though Lugosi starred successfully in the stage production, Laemmle and Browning allegedly intended Dracula to be a Lon Chaney vehicle. Chaney and Browning had a successful 10 film partnership with some truly demented films like The Unknown, but the great actor unfortunately died of cancer before shooting. Lugosi was eventually offered the role because the price was right and joined the cast at the last minute, along with David Manners (Harker) and a number of others. But it is undoubtedly Lugosi that made Dracula the success that it was. His captivating performance alone makes the film well worth watching, even if it is not quite the energetic, thrillfest a modern audience might hope for. 

Dracula: The Legacy Collection is a must have for any horror junkie. It also contains the Spanish version of Drácula, filmed on the same set at night with a different cast, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, and House of Dracula. There are two discs, though one is annoyingly double-sided. There are a fair amount of special features, though they all only deal with the original Dracula. The film can be viewed with its original score, which is a montage of popular classical music (Tchaikovsky, Wagner, etc), or with a new score composed by Phillip Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet. There is also an excellent commentary track from film historian David J. Skal, who is also co-editor of the Norton Critical edition of the novel and wrote The Monster Show, a book about the genesis of Universal horror and its later influence on American horror. There is an original documentary, The Road to Dracula, which is narrated by Carla Laemmle, niece of the great producer. It discusses the original film and the Spanish version. 

There are, unfortunately, some draw backs. This is supposedly a restored edition of Dracula, but there is little evidence of this. It looks pretty much on par with the first DVD release from ‘99. The disc navigation is pretty asinine and some people have had trouble with the packaging (though I haven’t experienced it myself) and occasional disc problems. An annoying detail, and in my opinion, the biggest drawback, is that these films were released together (at least, in part) to promote Stephen Sommers’ film Van Helsing. Dracula, sadly, has disc space wasted on an interview with Sommers on the set of Van Helsing with his lead actors all discussing (ok, reading from cue cards about) Dracula.

As a side note, I also have to compare this to the 75th Anniversary edition release. As the third Dracula released in only a few years, I can’t help but feel that this is just a cash ploy. It does, hands down, have the best visual and audio transfers, but it doesn’t really look cleaned up enough to be considered the ultimate transfer. It comes with the Spanish Drácula and the extras are a mix of things available in the Legacy Collection, along with some new features. There is a new documentary called Lugosi: The Dark Prince, a feature called Monster Tracks that has weird and interesting pop-up facts during the film, and an additional commentary track by Steve Haberman. In my opinion the only real benefit to this disc is a 95 minute documentary, Universal Horror, narrated by Kenneth Branagh with clips of rare films and a lot of interesting interviews. Like I said, I think it’s a money waster. The Legacy Collection is only $10 more, has most of the special features and includes three additional films, including House of Dracula, which cannot currently be found anywhere else on DVD. 

To confuse the issue further, there is also a newly released Blu-ray, which so far is the finest visual transfer. This is part of Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection, which includes Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, Phantom of the Opera, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Obviously this is an essential set, but as someone who already knowns multiple releases of all these films, it’s a hard sell. The video quality is absolutely amazing and this is the best visual release of Dracula to date. It includes all the special features from both previous Dracula editions (both Legacy and 75th anniversary) and the Spanish Drácula. The only drawback is that the three sequels are missing, which means that you need to own both the Legacy and Blu-ray editions if you want the complete Dracula experience. 

KNIGHTRIDERS

George A. Romero, 1981
Starring: Ed Harris, Tom Savini, Gary Lahti, Patricia Tallman

Not to be confused with the ‘80s TV show starring David Hasselhoff, George Romero’s sadly neglected cult epic Knightriders has finally seen the light of day, coming to Blu-ray from Arrow Films on April 22nd. Written and directed by Romero and filmed in his beloved Pittsburgh, this is one of his few non-horror films and, as a result, has been ignored by genre loyalists too long. Knightriders relates the winding, iconic tale of King Arthur and his court by way of a late ‘70s motorcycle gang whose primary form of employment is performing in a traveling Renaissance fair, starring Ed Harris in his first major film role.

Billy (Harris) is the leader of a renaissance-obsessed motorcycle gang who entertains at renaissance festivals by jousting on their bikes. Billy, or King William as he is known, struggles with living up to his Arthurian ideals and realistically running a troupe whilst providing for everyone at the same time. A promoter looks to represent them, going against Billy’s ideals, but attracts some of his group. After making a number of bad decisions, Billy’s main rival, Morgan (Tom Savini), attempts to take the gang away from him by forcing members to chose between Billy’s romantic idealism and Morgan’s lucrative practicality.

This dreamy, mythic, and very personal film is an acquired taste, but the odd cast of characters will likely appeal to cult fans. In addition to Harris and Savini, author Steven King makes an appearance, as does Romero regular Ken Foree. Though the film runs long at almost two hours, Knightriders is an interesting look at the faded idealism of the late ‘70s and will delight many genre fans because it is essentially a combination of Excalibur and other fantasy films and more melodramatic biker stories akin to Sons of Anarchy. As with Anarchy, the central figure of Knightriders is a man in a Shakespearean struggle to find a place in his world, and though he is the leader, his intense idealism always leaves him longing for something more.

Billy is a difficult, ultimately tragic figure, but Harris fittingly carries this compelling yet imperfect film on his shoulders. Knightriders is mostly only successful when Harris is on screen, as when he is not the central focus, the film suffers from too many superfluous characters and side plots. Though the group dynamic can be interesting, the financial woes of a band of outlaws are really just not that compelling. There is a surprisingly well-handled side story about a gay character accepting his sexuality and coming out, but the featured women are almost offensively one-dimensional. Savini, an actor in his own right, is fortunately at his best here and provides an excellent counterpoint to Harris.

Presented in an aspect ration of 1.84:1, the film looks absolutely beautiful, and Arrow has a done a great job with their restoration, which is a 1080p transfer encoded with MPEG-4 AVC. Although there is some mild evidence of aging, the color of the film looks particularly vivid and wonderful for an outdoorsy, warm-toned film. Arrow, as usual, doesn’t seem to have done a heavy-handed job of correcting the image, and I suspect here it looks the best and most organic that it ever will. This release definitely blows the original Anchor Bay DVD release out of the water. The English LPCM 2.0 is the only audio track available, but it is lossless and sounds fantastic. The action sequences are clear, dialogue is clean, and the soundtrack from Donald Rubinstein sounds robust, but well mixed. Arrow has also included optional English SDH subtitles for the film.

There are a number of great extras that really make this release the essential Knightriders. There is a wonderful commentary track featuring George Romero, Tom Savini, John Amplas and Christine Romero. Also included are a series of lengthy interviews: Ed Harris speaks about his first starring role, Tom Savini discusses his role as the rival Morgan, and actress Patricia Tallman relates her experiences on the set. Further included is the theatrical trailer and TV spots. As with most of Arrow’s releases, the original artwork is available on a reversible sleeve and the collector’s booklet has some nice writing on the film from critic Brad Stevens, an interview with Donald Rubinstein, and an archival interview with Romero, as well as still and posters.

Even though it might not be a complete success, this is totally unique entry in Romero’s catalogue is a compelling filmmaking experiment. Knightriders is not a film for everyone, but fans of Romero or late ‘70s/early ‘80s cult cinema will want to check it out. No, this is not a classic Romero horror film, but, alongside the also-undervalued Martin, Knightriders is likely the director’s most personal and emotional work. It comes recommended and is one of my favorite of his films. Anyone into motorcycle-themed films will also find a lot to enjoy here. The Arrow release is region 2/B Blu-ray and DVD dual format edition, so it is only playable those with multi-region DVD or Blu-ray players.

Friday, May 3, 2013

THE LAST PERFORMANCE

Paul Fejos, 1929
Starring: Conradt Veidt, Mary Philbin, Fed MacKaye, Leslie Fenton

Conrad Veidt stars as Erik the Great, an aged, charismatic stage magician who falls in love with (and becomes somewhat obsessed with) his young, lovely assistant (Mary Philbin from Phantom of the Opera). One night a young vagrant breaks into his hotel room to steal food and Julie, his assistant, insists that they take him in and Erik trains him to be a new assistant. Unfortunately for Erik, Julie falls in love with this unsavory character. Erik’s other assistant, the jealous Buffo, figures out what is going on and tells Erik. Soon after Buffo is found dead and Erik blames Mark, the young thief. 

Though this is not really a horror film, it fits more in line with a lot of Universal’s silent output from the ‘20s that are typically categorized as horror. There are some melodramatic elements, unrequited love, and murder, making this more of a mystery with horror leanings due to Veidt’s mesmerizing performance as the magician Erik the Great. The film is also very stylish, thanks to director Paul Fejos, and is worth seeing due to its speedy space and short running time (it clocks in at almost exactly an hour). Fejos’s work here is particularly notable for including some early zoom effects which make an otherwise static film much more dynamic. After making a number of films in Hungary, Fejos travelled to the U.S. for a few years to make a handful of exceptionally lovely and stylized films for Universal and MGM, such as The Last Moment and Lonesome, a very different kind of love story with a carnival setting. Soon after he returned to Europe and made a number of well regarded films, including Spring Shower. Afterwards he began making ethnographic documentaries and ended his life with a successful career in anthropology.

This is Conrad Veidt’s last silent film for Universal before returning to Germany, though he would be back in a few years to make films in the U.K. and the U.S. due to the outbreak of WWII. Veidt completely carries the film on his shoulders and is fantastic, as usual. The young Mary Philbin is very charming and photogenic, though her character is somewhat two-dimensional (as unfortunately all her silent film characters were.) As with some other films from the end of the ‘20s, such as Paul Leni’s The Last Warning, this film was primarily shot on parts of the wonderful and very expensive set built for Phantom of the Opera

Also known as Erik the Great, the film is available as a special feature on the excellent Criterion Lonesome release or for free on Youtube. There are actually two versions, a totally silent film, which is the one available in the Criterion release, and a semi-sound version with sound effects and some dialogue, which was typical of the transitional period between silent films and talkies. Beware that the print looks very aged, though it is worlds better than some of the unrestored silent films from Universal like The Last Warning. Recommended primarily to fans of Veidt and anyone with an interest in some of the themes Tod Browning would explore throughout his career: sideshows, performance, carnivals, etc. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

THE LAST WARNING


Paul Leni, 1929
Starring: Laura La Plante, Montagu Love, Margaret Livingston, John Boles

Paul Leni’s follow up to The Cat and the Canary, The Last Warning, is a riff on the “old dark house” subgenre. During the production of a play, an actor is murdered. Five years later, a producer decides he is going to solve the mystery once and for all by re-staging the play with the surviving cast members. There are an absolutely litany of suspects and a lead actress who several men are fighting over. Unfortunately, after a number of ominous accidents, someone else dies and everyone hastens to find the killer before they too are murdered, though some believe they are being haunted by a ghost. 

Though this is not strictly a horror film - it’s really more of a murder mystery - its connection to Universal horror may make it of interest to genre fans. Star Laura La Plante also starred in The Cat and the Canary and was one of the most popular silent film actresses of the period. German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni brings some lovely, imaginative scenes to what otherwise would likely have been dull proceedings. Leni was on loan from Germany, along with a number of other actors and directors who moved to Britain or the U.S. during the late ‘20s through WWII. The deep shadows, stark angles of the old theater, hidden passageways, expressionist like shots, and sets recycled from The Phantom of the Opera certainly make this a horror-tinged murder mystery. During one wonderful shot in particular, Leni makes the front of the theater seem like a leering, evil face, which would be reused countless times in the later horror films. And as with Leni’s The Cat and the Canary, there is also a certain sense of dark humor at work and part of what makes this film entertaining is its refusal to take itself seriously. 

The film is not perfect and suffers from a clunky script. Many horror films from this period were based on stage plays (this is based on a play by Thomas F. Fallon, who adapted it from Henry S. Wadsworth Camp's novel Backstage Phantom) and, as a result, have a different structure. Dracula, for example, is light years from its source novel and feels more like a parlor room talkie with brief moments of supernatural terror. The Last Warning suffers from similar issues, with simply too much exposition and talking to fill the running time, though Leni makes the absolute best of it. He is saddled with tropes and stock characters like much of this genre, but lightens things up with clever headlines and inter-titles that mark much of Leni’s work. This is also one of the few silent horror/mysteries films that give us a glimpse of the jazz age, which gives the plot a little added dimension. The conclusion is lackluster, particularly after Leni has spent so much time effectively building us up to consider that the culprit may be supernatural. 

Though The Last Warning is by no means a must-see, it has many enjoyable moments. If you love The Cat and the Canary, The Bat, The Old Dark House, or spooky mysteries, then this is definitely for you. The film moves at a brisk pace and has some enjoyable action, mild scares, and plenty of twists and red herrings. It has not yet been restored and released on DVD, but it is available on Youtube because it has become part of the public domain. Be forewarned: though this is a silent film, like other films from the transitional period in the late ‘20s, certain sound elements are included, like crowd noises early in the film. Apparently Universal released three versions of the film, all with different soundtracks, including a partial talkie that is now lost. 

Unfortunately this was Leni’s final film before he died of blood poisoning later the same year. It was remade a decade later by Joe May as The House of Fear. Like Leni, May was a German expatriate and a pioneer of the German/Austrian film industry. May also went on to direct a Universal horror film, The Invisible Man Returns