Sunday, October 31, 2010

DIE LAUGHING

I’m gonna be brief this time around, as this is October 31 and I have a whole slew of fright flicks I plan to watch today. I figured I’d wrap up my month-long series of Halloween-themed blog entries with my picks for the funniest horror comedies of all time. I’m hankering to crank up the ol’ Blu-ray player, so, without further ado…


1. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)




This never fails to crack me up. So many great moments, such as the phone
conversation between Lou Costello’s Wilbur and Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man (“Mr. Talbot, you’ll have to get your dog away from the phone”) and Bud Abbott’s Chick pleading repeatedly to Wilbur to “untie the boat” as they try to escape from the approaching Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). Bela Lugosi is marvelous in his second (and final) screen appearance as Count Dracula. The main reason why it’s so effective is that as funny as the comedy is, the monsters themselves are never played for laughs.

2. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)




‘Nuff said.


3. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)




I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched this. It’s one of the quintessential
movies from my teen years (I saw it for the first time opening weekend with my brother-from-another-mother, Nick G.), and it was one-third of the “holy trinity” of the summer of 1984 (the other two being Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock). Eminently quotable, even to this day. I don’t think Bill Murray has ever been funnier. And the spooky stuff was pretty darned spooky!

4. FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)




I have Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert to thank for pointing me towards this film. Nick
G. and I were watching At The Movies on a Saturday afternoon, Gene and Roger gave it a positive review and showed a clip, and Nick and I were so impressed with it that we looked at each other enthusiastically, got up off the couch, and went straight to the nearest theater. We weren’t disappointed. And believe it or not, the 1988 sequel, which barely got a theatrical release, is actually pretty good.

5. SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)




A nice blend of comedy and genuinely gruesome moments, with the zombies—and
the threat that they pose—never played for laughs.

6. LOVE AT FIRST BITE (1979)




This is a lot of fun. Very witty, clever, and politically incorrect. You can tell that the
cast—including George Hamilton as Dracula(!), Susan St. James as his intended bride, Arte Johnson as Renfield, Richard Benjamin as a deranged, lovesick psychiatrist, and Dick Shawn as a rumpled NYPD lieutenant—had a ball making this film. Too bad the film’s most iconic scene—Hamilton and St. James dancing to Alicia Bridges’s disco classic “I Love the Night Life”—was utterly destroyed in its VHS and DVD versions, as the film company apparently never cleared the rights to the song for video release, so it was replaced with some generic disco song. Big bummer.

7. ZOMBIELAND (2009)




Like Shaun of the Dead, it plays the zombie stuff totally straight, with the laughs
coming strictly from the small group of survivors, which includes Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg (a dead ringer for Michael Cera), Abigail Breslin, and Emma Stone (soon to be Gwen Stacy in the next Spider-Man movie). And there’s an absolutely HILARIOUS surprise cameo appearance, one I won’t spoil here if you don’t already know about it.

8. EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977)




This was most definitely NOT intended to be a comedy. But it’s so bad on every level
(directing, editing, dialogue, acting), that it can’t help but be a laugh riot—and to inspire wicked Mystery Science Theater 3000 style running commentary from the audience. Last time I watched this, I was with my roommate at the time, the ever awesome Steve Bunche, who managed to convince the gal who would eventually become my wife to sit down and watch it with us. It’s important to note that she simply cannot handle any films that have to do with the devil. But not only did she make it all the way through this notorious crapfest, she was laughing out loud along with us.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!


Sunday, October 24, 2010

QUITE FRANK-LY

It’s highly doubtful that when Mary Shelley published her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus back in 1818, she had any idea how much of an impact it would have, how influential it would be, of how long it would endure as a work of literature and as a cultural icon. There’s a very good reason why it’s had such longevity: It’s a great story, told extremely well.


Mary Shelley

And yet, most people don’t really know much about it—or at least, they have
misconceptions about it. So many people believe that the Monster’s name is Frankenstein. (It’s not—the Monster doesn’t have a name. Frankenstein is the name of the man who created him.) They believe that the Monster was created by the mad Dr. Henry Frankenstein. (Frankenstein’s first name was actually Victor—it was changed to Henry in the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff. He was not a full-fledged doctor—he was a young medical student who had actually dropped out of school. And he was not mad—he was obsessed, but hardly insane.) And they believe that the Monster is a mute, shambling abomination made with the brain of a vicious criminal. (Not so—the Monster was actually quite intelligent, having taught himself to read and to speak quite eloquently, and he was hardly vicious by nature.)


Karloff, 1931

Many of these misconceptions were born once the story was brought to the movies. And
that’s what is both fascinating and frustrating about Hollywood: It can recognize a great story, but in translating it to the big screen, it can twist and warp and transform that story into something so radically different, so far removed from its source material, that the filmmakers might as well have just gone the full distance and produced something wholly original.





First edition of the novel, 1818

In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein’s creation enters this world much as a newborn baby:
completely innocent, a total blank slate.


Art by Berni Wrightson, from his 1983 illustrated version of the novel

But rejected by his creator, he goes out into the
world in search of a place to fit in, and of people to connect to. As noted above, the Monster is remarkably intelligent and clever. He is capable of love and affection, but is denied both because of his hideous appearance. He is, in the truest sense of the word, a victim of circumstance, rejected by his own creator and feared and hated by society.


More gorgeous art by Wrightson

As
his bitterness and resentment grow, he takes increasingly aggressive action, intending specifically to hurt the man who brought him into this world and then abandoned him. The Monster commits some truly heinous acts to hurt Victor Frankenstein, and these acts are calculated, done intentionally, plotted and carried out with cold efficiency. From the Monster’s viewpoint, he was driven to these acts, but that does not change the fact that it was his choice to commit them.


One last look at Wrightson's awesome work

In most of the movies, starting with the 1931 version starring Boris Karloff, there is a
fundamental difference. The Monster is a threat right from the start, because he was fitted with the brain of a criminal—not intentionally, but that’s irrelevant. From the moment the Monster opens his eyes for the first time, he is a dangerous being, one driven to violent acts not by choice, but because it’s his nature. Karloff’s Monster is literally a born criminal, almost as monstrous on the inside as he is on the outside. But the film also portrays the Monster as childlike, incapable of speech, and not fully cognizant of his actions—such as when he throws little Maria into the lake, thinking she’ll float like the flowers they had just been tossing into the water. This is most definitely not Shelley’s creature.


Maria and the Monster

It’s almost as if Hollywood didn’t think that audiences of that time could accept a
Monster who was more complex, who could actually be multi-dimensional, who could be held responsible for his actions—even though Mary Shelley’s novel was written more than 100 years earlier at that point!

Even when Hammer Films started its own series of Frankenstein movies with 1957’s The
Curse of Frankenstein (starring Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the Creature), the filmmakers leaned more towards Karloff than Shelley—in that film, the Creature’s brain is not from a dangerous criminal, but it is damaged accidentally before being implanted, which accounts for the Creature’s subsequent inability to speak or to reason, and his tendency for violent, even murderous behavior. Again, we have a being who cannot really be held responsible for the horrifying things that he does. It’s just his way.


Christopher Lee, 1957

It’s very interesting that the movies, for the most part, shy away from the concept of a
Frankenstein Monster who is fully in control of himself and his actions.

I’ve never been able to fathom exactly WHY no filmmaker has ever been able to bring
the story, as Shelley wrote it, to the screen—not even Kenneth Branagh with his 1994 film, ironically titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel is written in a fairly straightforward, conventional, mostly linear fashion, so it would be relatively easy to adapt into a screenplay. (Certainly easier to adapt than, say, Dracula by Bram Stoker, which has ALSO never been brought to the screen 100 percent faithfully—despite Francis Ford Coppola’s claim that he achieved just that with his 1992 film. Both Branagh and Coppola came closer than anyone else with their respective films, but they both made unfortunate and unnecessary deviations from and additions to the source material that torpedoed any chances of those films being the true, definitive movie adaptations that fans had long been hoping for.)


DeNiro, 1994

Shelley’s novel is gripping, disturbing, and exciting, with
lots of drama, tension, and conflict, and populated by interesting characters. It doesn’t need a lot of tinkering and rethinking. And yet, for some reason, filmmakers can’t seem to resist.

Not to say that all of the movies are no good. Quite the contrary. The Karloff films— particularly the first two, which were directed by the great James Whale—are absolute classics, despite the fact that they barely resemble the novel. Some of the Hammer movies are fun (though Christopher Lee’s Creature only appears in the first one—that series of films focuses on Peter Cushing’s Victor rather than his creation). As for the 1994 version—well, if you get off on seeing a sweaty and shirtless Kenneth Branagh chomping on the scenery as if his life depended on it, and acting opposite Robert DeNiro as probably the most forgettable version of the Frankenstein Monster ever, then that movie should be right up your alley.


Oh my.


Branagh and DeNiro in a little man-on-monster action

The fact is, to get the full, pure, unaltered Frankenstein story as envisioned by the original
author, you really do have to read the book. There are no cinematic shortcuts. The good news, for those of you who haven’t read it, is that it’s one hell of a good book! Just leave your preconceived notions at the door, put images of Boris Karloff out of your mind, and let Mary Shelley take you on a vivid, memorable, epic journey of terror and tragedy.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

FRIGHT-FILM FAVORITES

As promised, I’m continuing with the horror-themed series of columns that I began last week (here), and will keep doing throughout October.

For more years than I’d like to admit, I’ve spent Halloween night watching a marathon of
horror movies—sometimes with friends, sometimes solo. This year will be no different. Some of the films I intend to watch this time around are included in the list below—a list that ranks, in ascending order, my 10 favorite fright flicks. Each one of these films is highly recommended, and makes for perfect viewing on October 31.

10)
CANDYMAN (1992)




I found this film, which is based on a Clive Barker story, to be a breath of fresh air when
it first came out. It was gripping, well acted, well directed, and mostly free of the clich├ęs of the genre. I watched it again within the last couple of years and was surprised by how well it holds up. Virginia Madsen delivers a strong performance as the protagonist, a grad student who ends up paying a terrible price for not taking an urban legend seriously. Tony Todd stars as the title character and manages to make the audience feel some degree of sympathy for him while being repulsed by his hideous actions.

9) THE FLY (1986)



Directed by David Cronenberg, this remake of the 1958 classic does the near impossible, especially when it comes to the horror genre: It manages to equal the original, and in some ways, to even improve upon it. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis rank up there as one of the great couples in horror-film history—they were really wonderful together here.

8) NEAR DARK (1987)




This is a really good vampire film that creates its own mythology and rules for the
Undead—something I don’t always approve of, but it works for me here. It stars a young Adrian Pasdar (most recently a regular cast member on Heroes) and seemingly half the cast of Aliens (specifically Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, and the always fun to watch Bill Paxton). Pasdar plays Caleb, a young man in Oklahoma who thinks he’s just met his dream girl, Mae (played by Jenny Wright)—but when she introduces him to her “family,” he finds himself caught up in a nightmarish existence. It was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who won the Oscar last year for The Hurt Locker.

7) THE OMEN (1976)



It’s unlikely that anyone isn’t aware of this dark, disturbing tale about prophecy,
conspiracy, betrayal, and the coming of the Antichrist in the form of a seemingly innocent, adorable little boy. A huge hit at the box office, it has cast a long shadow over pop culture since its release, and deservedly so. An impressive cast led by Gregory Peck and top-notch direction by Richard Donner, who, based on the success of this film, would be hired to direct 1978’s Superman: The Movie.

6) PSYCHO (1960)



The granddaddy of the slasher film, and my favorite Hitchcock movie. Tame by today’s
standards, but it still packs a wallop, with a compelling story, dark wit, and a landmark twist ending (which got spoiled for me years before I ever saw the film, thanks to an episode of Happy Days). Janet Leigh leaves an indelible mark as the ill-fated Marion Crane, and in his performance as Norman Bates, Anthony Perkins establishes himself as a cinematic icon. It was a role that would overshadow everything else he would ever do in his long acting career, and apparently he was not always comfortable with that fact, but it would seem that in his later years, he made peace with it, spoofing the character on Saturday Night Live and even agreeing to return to the role for three decades-later sequels. Speaking of which—they’re actually pretty good, especially Psycho II.

5) THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)



Far as I can tell, this is the very first example of a movie sequel that is as good as—I
would even say superior to—the original. The 1931 Frankenstein is, of course, a bona fide classic, having long since achieved iconic status. It made a star out of Boris Karloff, and in his makeup as the Monster, his image is familiar to pretty much every single person across the world. But with Bride, returning director James Whale is allowed to let his creativity, his sense of humor, his slyness, and his irreverence run wild. The film also displays an impressive attention to detail—having been trapped in a burning windmill at the end of the original film, Karloff’s makeup in Bride reflects the injuries that the Monster sustained, with most of the hair on the top of his head burned off and his arms and clothes properly singed. Much like The Empire Strikes Back, this first Frankenstein sequel deepens the original characters and adds some memorable new ones. Henry Frankenstein, once again played by Colin Clive, shows newfound maturity as he expresses regret over his actions in the previous film, and the Monster makes a friend and even learns to speak—a development that Karloff reportedly disliked greatly, but it’s one of the real highlights of the film and I’m glad that Whale brushed off Karloff’s objections. As for the new characters, Ernest Thesiger as the wonderfully demented Dr. Septimus Pretorius and Una O’Connor as the shrill busybody Minnie pretty much steal every scene they’re in. And of course, Elsa Lanchester gives a very memorable performance as the intended bride of the Monster, without ever uttering a single word.

4) DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)



Here’s another great horror sequel. It took ten years, but director George A. Romero
finally followed up on his classic Night of the Living Dead with this intelligent, gory, disturbing, and even fun epic about the world succumbing to a plague of flesh-eating zombies. You probably know the gist: four friends hole up in a shopping mall while society falls apart due to the ever-rising number of the walking dead. But there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s a commentary on our materialistic culture, on the fragility of civilization, on gender equality, and even, to some degree, on blowhard talking-head know-it-all pundits—and this was decades before the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly, and Olbermann. The 2004 remake—with which Romero had no involvement— is very good, but it lacks the original version’s substance.

3) HALLOWEEN (1978)



As far as I’m concerned, this is a damn-near perfectly executed film. Not a second is
wasted. It sets an ominous mood right from the start and maintains it all the way to the end. The characters are well developed and contrast against each other nicely, and their dialogue is realistic and believable. The music itself almost becomes a main character. And perhaps most impressively, while masked killer Michael Myers never utters a single word, and for the most part is kept off-screen or placed in the shadows or seen from a distance, he is nonetheless a strong presence throughout the movie, even in the scenes in which he doesn’t appear at all, or that seem to have nothing to do with him. Masterful work by director John Carpenter, who also co-wrote the screenplay with producer Debra Hill and even composed the music. As Laurie Strode, Jamie Lee Curtis is a heroine you can really root for—likable, vulnerable, intelligent, and resourceful, even against a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. And Donald Pleasance is marvelous as the obsessed, slightly off-kilter Dr. Sam Loomis. Of the many sequels, all of which were totally unnecessary, the only ones that could be considered worth watching are Halloween II (1981), Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), and Halloween H20 (1998). The rest should just be ignored, as should Rob Zombie’s ill-conceived remakes of the first two films.

2) NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)



George A. Romero’s first film, and it is dark, disturbing, shocking, and bleak
. It’s even humorous at times (though not always intentionally). You probably know the premise: A group of strangers barricade themselves in a farmhouse and try to fend off growing hordes of the recently dead, whose bodies have somehow been reactivated and who now feast upon the living. The film is groundbreaking not only for its then-innovative depiction of zombies as flesh-eating ghouls, but also for having an African-American as the lead protagonist (Duane Jones, excellent in the role of Ben)—and this was at a time when racial tensions in America ran high. From its opening moments, there is a sense of dread, that doom is coming. Once it arrives, it never lets up. No one is safe—not the good, not the bad, not the innocent, not the guilty, not the likable, not the annoying, not even the children. Truly, a great horror film.

1) THE EXORCIST (1973)



This gets the top spot because it is, in my estimation, the scariest movie ever made. My
wife refuses to watch it—and I’ve offered her money to do so. Hell, she doesn’t even want it in the house! Last time I watched it on DVD, a few years ago with my pal Weird Pete, the holiday decorations in my living room fell off the wall spontaneously the moment when the demon’s voice is heard for the first time. I nearly had to be pried off the ceiling. A horror film has to be pretty damned effective to make me that jittery. The Director’s Cut, which is the version that I own, adds some nice character bits, along with the infamous moment in which Linda Blair’s character, young Regan MacNeil, crawls down a staircase on her back like a spider. The movie is by no means perfect—I’ve long had some problems with its plotting and its story structure—but the things that work far outweigh the relatively minor flaws. Just pretend that the sequels and prequels never happenedthough admittedly, there are many, MANY laughs to be had from watching 1977's Exorcist II: The Heretic, surely one of the biggest cinematic misfires of all time.

So those are my picks. What are yours?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

DRACULA GETS HAMMERED

First things first: Happy 70th birthday, John. To think of all the music that you could have created for us over the last 30 years…



Okay, on to business. Halloween is coming up—probably my favorite holiday. Some of you out
there no doubt remember my infamous Halloween horror movie marathons, and the extent to which I would go to celebrate the Day of Black and Orange. So from now until October 31, assuming I can stick to a weekly schedule, my blog posts will have some sort of Halloween theme.

Last week, I went to see the new vampire movie Let Me In, which was produced by Hammer
Films, the recently resurrected British movie company best remembered for its classic horror movies starring the legendary Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Hammer’s heyday was from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s, but the company all but ceased to exist by 1977. I’m glad to see it back, and with a film that is so well done. Let Me In is engrossing, intriguing, haunting, and heartbreaking, and I declare it recommended viewing.



But that’s not what I’ll be writing about here. I bring up Let Me In only because it was produced by Hammer Films, and coincidentally enough, my dear friend Nick and I were out to dinner just
recently and we got into an extended conversation about all of the classic Hammer movies. You might even say we were geeking out about them. Go ahead, say it. Get it out of your system.

Anyway, that got me to thinking about the series of Dracula films that Hammer produced, starting in 1958 with Horror of Dracula and ending in 1973 with The Satanic Rites of Dracula. All but one of the films starred Christopher Lee as the vampire lord, and Peter Cushing appeared in four of them: two as Dr. Van Helsing and two as his grandson, Lorrimer.


The entire series encompasses eight films (not counting the true oddity known as The Legend of
the Seven Golden Vampires, a 1974 kung fu/horror film co-produced by Hammer and Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studio, featuring Peter Cushing as Dr. Lawrence Van Helsing and Dracula in a cameo appearance—though he’s not played by Lee, who by that point had tired of the role). Of those eight films, I own all but two on DVD.

And now seems like a perfect time for an overview!


Let me start off by saying: Boy, what a spotty series!

HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)



Even this first entry, considered by most to be the best of the series, doesn't hold up
all that well on close inspection. I understand the need to adapt the novel and make major changes to move things along—they only had 90 minutes to tell the story, after all. But the changes have to make sense. In the novel, Jonathan Harker is a young attorney summoned by Dracula to his castle in Transylvania to help him finalize the purchase of an estate in England. In Horror of Dracula, Harker arrives at the castle to begin his new job as an archivist for the Count’s library. Harker is really there to destroy Dracula, secretly working with Van Helsing, but Dracula doesn’t know any of that. Which begs the question: Why the hell would Dracula hire an archivist for his library? Why would a vampire care whether his book collection is in order? Did he want someone to come in and apply the Dewey Decimal System? From a character standpoint, and a logical one, this makes absolutely no sense. Still, Lee and Cushing are GREAT and the ending is satisfying enough.

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)



I don't own this one. It's the first sequel to Horror of Dracula, and it features the return of
Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing, but Lee is a no-show—as is Dracula. Lee wasn’t ready to don the cape again, and steadfastly turned down Hammer’s offers to do so. I give Hammer credit for not hiring someone else to play the Count—they knew audiences would not accept anyone but Lee. To stand in for Dracula, Hammer brought in David Peel as undead pretty-boy Baron Meinster:



who kind of looked like a cross between a young Robert Wagner:



and Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine in 1928’s The Man Who Laughs:



(Incidentlally, Veidt as Gwynplaine was the
inspiration for the Joker.)

I’ve only seen bits and pieces of The Brides of Dracula over the years, but I
hear it’s actually pretty good. One of these days, I’ll get around to watching it in its entirety.

DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)



This third film is okay. It’s not QUITE as good as Horror of
Dracula, but it’s in the general zone. The most notable thing about it, of course, is that it marked Christopher Lee’s return to the role of Dracula after eight years. It’s essentially a haunted house story, with the haunted house being Castle Dracula. The arrival of hapless travelers who end up spending the night there serves as the catalyst for the Count’s return from the Great Beyond. As Dracula, Lee has absolutely no dialogue this time around. Supposedly, he was so disappointed in the lines that were written for him that he suggested that Dracula not speak at all, that he function solely as a silent, supernatural presence. (To be fair, the film’s screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, has claimed that it was HIS idea to keep the Count silent, and that he never even wrote any dialogue for Dracula in the script.) The film concludes with a somewhat hokey ending for Dracula, but the cast is good and Lee doesn't need to utter a word to be effective.

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)



The fourth film in the series, this one is unfairly maligned, particularly by
Lee himself. I think it's a strong entry with interesting characters, interesting interpersonal conflicts, a really strong performance by Lee, and probably the most gorgeous female to ever grace a Hammer production: Veronica Carlson (shown above), who was a fairly effective actress too. Even the male romantic lead—usually the most bland, boring, and forgettable element in a Hammer film— is interesting and well developed in this one. Portrayed by Barry Andrews, our hero is likable, fallible, and relatable. Plus, he's a dead ringer for the young Roger Daltrey! I would argue that the plot has more substance than any other film in the series, as it is as much about the still-relevant conflict between faith and reason as it is about the struggle between good and evil. And the ending is a doozie, with a particularly gruesome death for Dracula.

TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969)



This fifth film is a step down. It gets off to a good start, but
quickly starts to stumble. Ralph Bates chews the scenery, regurgitates it, and then chews it all over again. Lee is given virtually nothing to do with the barest minimum of dialogue. The characters and even the interpersonal conflicts are little more than watered-down, far less effective retreads of what we saw in the previous film. And the ending is both incoherent and unsatisfying. It's as if they suddenly realized they had to wrap things up, so they improvised the ending on the spot on the last day of shooting.

SCARS OF DRACULA (1970)



Sixth in the series, this one broke from the line of continuity established in the five previous films and
told a stand-alone story that doesn't connect with anything that came before. And it's actually one of my favorites. This time around, Dracula is actually central to the plot, Lee gets a lot of screen time and dialogue, and there's lots of nice little nods to the Stoker novel—including a moment where Dracula scales the side of his castle. Former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton gives a fantastic, memorable performance as Dracula's manservant, Klove. The only real weak elements are the male romantic lead (bland, boring, colorless, stoic-to-the-point-of-being-a-walking-mannequin), the ridiculous vampire bat puppet that can actually HOVER in mid-air, and the silly, ludicrous death they concocted for Dracula. The lead actress, Jenny Hanley, is absolutely BEAUTIFUL:



(Too bad for her that all of her dialogue was dubbed in by another actress. I dunno—she seemed to give an adequate performance. Could her line deliveries really have been that bad?)

Christopher Lee bashed Scars Of Dracula for years, saying it was the worst of the bunch. But he did a running commentary for the DVD a few years back and admitted that he didn't even remember the film—that he didn't think he ever saw the finished work. He actually made some positive remarks about some of its elements as he watched it. It was funny—he was going on and on throughout the commentary about how the Hammer films had gone wrong over the course of the series: Dracula became less and less integral to the stories, there was not enough adherence to Stoker's novel... yet none of those criticisms apply to Scars! Lee did criticize the level of sadism displayed by Dracula in this film, but I think he's off the mark. This was the first time in the Hammer series where Dracula was really FRIGHTENING, really DISTURBING. I dug it. And Lee's performance is impeccable.

DRACULA A.D. 1972



The series totally went off the rails with this seventh film. I don't have a
problem with moving Dracula into the modern age—as my undying love for Marvel’s 1970s comic-book series The Tomb of Dracula will attest to. But this... it doesn't work as a horror film, because it's not scary at all. In fact, it's downright BORING. Yes, BORINGeven with the delectable Caroline Munroe in a supporting role:



It doesn't work as a Dracula film,
because Dracula has less screen time than ever. It doesn't even work as a reunion of Lee and Peter Cushing, because they have barely 2 minutes of screen time together and their relationship in the modern age is never established or developed. (Cushing is playing a descendant of the original Van Helsing, one who’s never met Dracula before—and doesn’t come face to face with the Count until the closing minutes of the film.) But the biggest sin is that they establish that Dracula has been gone for 100 years, and yet when he's revived, he experiences no culture shock whatsoever. It's never even dealt with! What's Dracula's reaction to airplanes? Television? Cars? You won't find out here! Take away the 1972 aspect of this film and the same exact story, more or less, could have been told in a 19th Century setting. In fact, it was—in Taste The Blood Of Dracula. Lee and Cushing gave it their all, but it wasn't enough to save this sorry excuse for a Dracula movie. Remarkably, Hammer went back to the well the following year.

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973)



This eighth and final film
is even worse than its immediate predecessor. And it’s the OTHER movie I don’t own on DVD. Thoroughly boring with a silly, ill-conceived plot, I’ve never been able to get through this film. Seriously, I found it intolerable. Considering that this movie marked the last time that Christopher Lee would ever play Dracula for Hammer, and the last time that Peter Cushing would ever play opposite Lee as Van Helsing, it’s a travesty. Talk about ending on a sour note.

But I still get a real kick out of watching the better ones. Lee is just so damned good as Dracula—
he’s the best there’s ever been, as far as I’m concerned. (Sorry, Bela). And when he’s working with even a semi-decent script, and he’s giving a substantial part to play in the story, and he’s playing opposite women as lovely as the aforementioned Veronica Carlson, well, there are far worse ways to spend 90 minutes.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

IT BEGINS: TV SEASON 2010-2011

The new TV season has seemed to have shown up from out of nowhere—where the hell did the summer go? But I’m always happy to welcome back established favorites and to try out new shows, hoping that I’ll get in on the ground floor of the next 24, Lost, Sopranos, or NYPD Blue—some unique show that comes along and really changes the television landscape, specifically for the better.

We’re still in the very early stages of the 2010-2011 season, but here’s my rundown of everything I’ve seen thus far.

SUNDAY

DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (ABC, 9 PM)



A good start. Solid season premiere. And Vanessa Williams—who I consider to be one of the most beautiful women on the planet—is a welcome addition to the cast. Hopefully the writers will serve her well, something they were not able to do with previous season-long guest-stars Alfre Woodard and Drea DeMatteo, both of whose characters became tiresome distractions almost immediately. Nice to see Mark Moses back as Paul Young, who could turn out to be a strong villain this year. But I’m sorry to see Kyle MacLachlan reduced to “guest star” status—I’m figuring his character’s days are numbered. And I’m still getting over the loss of Dana Delany from the cast. She was part of the reason I kept watching the show during its “down” periods. Other thoughts: Carlos looks like a kid without the facial hair! I found Brian Austin Green surprisingly tolerable. And most of the ladies—particularly Teri Hatcher—don’t seem to have aged a day since the show began.

BOARDWALK EMPIRE (HBO, 9 PM)



Steve Buscemi is terrific in a role that is fairly atypical for him—the big man in charge, the power player. The attention to period detail is impressive, the overall premise is compelling, the characters are intriguing, and there’s plenty of sex and violence. So what’s not to like?

BORED TO DEATH (HBO, 10 PM)



The chemistry between Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, and Zach Galifianakis is absolutely wonderful, and this show, now starting its second season, just keeps getting better and better. Schwartzman, as freelance writer/unlicensed private detective Jonathan Ames, is one of the most unlikely heroes you’ll ever see. His cases always end up with him in very hot water (or very hot leather, as in the second-season premiere) and his interactions with his high-living pothead editor George (Danson) and his sad-sack cartoonist best friend Ray (Galifianakis) are surefire comic gold.

MONDAY

LONE STAR (FOX, 9 PM)



Having watched the first two episodes, I declare that this is one of the very best new shows of the season. But it doesn’t matter. Because after airing those first two episodes, FOX has already pulled the plug on it. Apparently, my friend Weird Pete and I were the only ones watching it. A damn shame—it was well written, well acted (the cast included Jon Voight and David Keith, both of whom were turning in wonderful performances), the main characters were very interesting, and the plot twists kept coming fast and furious.

THE EVENT (NBC, 9 PM)



Far as I can tell, it’s trying to be a cross between The X-Files and Lost, with some of the stylistic flourishes of 24. But I couldn’t care less about any of the characters (though Jason Ritter, pictured above, has been pretty solid as the male lead). And I found the “big secret” behind the main plot, revealed in the second episode, to be utterly underwhelming—something I feel like I’ve seen a million times before. I’m giving this show one more episode to impress me, and if it doesn’t, I’m done.

TWO AND A HALF MEN (CBS, 9 PM)



Always good for a few really big laugh-out-loud moments per episode, but the increasing reliance on crude sex jokes is unfortunate. Plus, the reveal that 16-year-old Jake is now taking part in threesomes was totally irresponsible and borderline reprehensible. There’s also the fact that pretty much every single character on the show is now thoroughly unlikable. Charlie, while still funny, is becoming more and more evil, even sadistic. I’ve hated Charlie’s housekeeper Berta since Day One, and I see absolutely no reason for her continued presence on the show. (They kept her on and reduced Melanie Lynskey’s Rose to occasional guest-star status???) Jake has become a fairly repugnant shithead, and his relationship with his father is just sad and depressing. Alan still provides laughs, but he’s really pathetic now. It’s hard to root for him at this point. The only really likable character is Herb, Judith’s new husband, but he’s not a regular cast member and shows up only sporadically. And I really wish the writers would provide stronger material for the female love interests. Jennifer Taylor’s Chelsea was a one-dimensional bore who lacked any hint of a personality and did nothing but set up punchlines for all of the other characters. I fear the same fate will befall Courtney Thorne-Smith’s Lindsay—which would be most unfortunate, as Thorne-Smith is a talented actress who can handle comedy well. Thankfully, Kelly Stables is back as Melissa, one of the few female characters on the show who was actually allowed to get laughs.

WEDNESDAY

MODERN FAMILY (ABC, 9 PM)



What the hell happened? Last year, in its debut season, this show was a breath of fresh air—clever, witty, endearing, genuinely funny, with likable and believable characters put into situations that, as far as sitcoms go, were pretty down-to-earth and relatable. Two episodes into its second season, Modern Family has been utterly devoid of any of those elements. It’s just another mediocre sitcom now, with the characters portrayed as exaggerated caricatures of themselves and thrown into increasingly silly and typical sitcom scenarios. It usually takes YEARS for a sitcom to get to that point. For some reason, Sofia Vergara is now playing up her accent like never before, and her character Gloria might as well wear a big sign that says “I’m from Colombia.” To make matters worse, the writers are now portraying her as an insecure, scheming, borderline psychotic, threatened by and jealous of her young son’s female schoolmate and determined to humiliate her husband because he doesn’t believe in ghosts like she does. Ty Burrell’s Phil, who was a riot last year, is now just a dopey schmuck. In the second episode of this season, he actually admits out loud in front of his wife Claire that he hasn’t been paying attention to what she’s been saying—something he never would have done last year. Speaking of Claire, she’s now little more than a joyless, perpetually tense, tightly wound nagging machine. Yes, that was part of her nature last year, but it seems to have taken over completely. Mitchell and Cam have probably fared the best so far this season, but nothing truly FUNNY has been done with them. Their moments have either been mildly amusing (Mitchell’s dislike of public displays of affection) to echoes of better episodes from last year (Mitchell getting trapped in a confined space with a bird). Ed O’Neill’s Jay has gotten off pretty easy thus far this season, but that’s only because not much has been done with him yet. The show’s newfound reliance on slapstick humor is regrettable, and only succeeds in removing it even further from the “grounded in reality” feel it used to have. I ask again—what the hell happened?

LAW AND ORDER: SVU (NBC, 9 PM)



The cases themselves are still compelling enough--though the dialogue and the manner in which relevant characters enter a scene defy believability. Plus, we’re now three episodes into the new season, and each one has fallen apart almost completely in its final moments. Might be time to finally put this show to rest, especially with Christopher Meloni leaving at the end of the season.

THURSDAY

COMMUNITY (NBC, 8 PM)



I can take or leave this show. Sometimes it’s pretty darned funny, other times it leaves me cold. During its first season, if I missed an episode, I didn’t consider it a major loss. Two episodes into its second season, I feel the same way.

30 ROCK (NBC, 8:30 PM)



Still very fun and funny. Tina Fey remains one of the most adorable and appealing women on television and Alec Baldwin is simply brilliant as Jack Donaghy. His video messages to his unborn child in this past week’s episode were just the latest example—with a totally straight face and not a hint of irony, he quoted word for word Marlon Brando’s holographic greeting to young Clark Kent in Superman: The Movie: “My son… you do not remember me… I am your father,” thus continuing the show’s proud tradition of throwing in clever pop culture in-jokes that only us geeks would get. (“Help me, Liz Lemon, you’re my only hope!” and Rip Torn’s now deceased Don Geiss being frozen in carbonite being just two others). This is a “can’t miss” show at Casa de Greenberg.

THE OFFICE (NBC, 9 PM)



First of all, the cold opening they did in last week’s season premiere—in which the entire cast took part in a music video set to “Nobody But Me” by Human Beinz—was downright FANTASTIC. This show certainly has had its ups and downs—last season was particularly uneven—but even at its worst, The Office is better than almost any other comedy on television. Based on the first two episodes of this season, we seem to be in an “up” period—which makes it all the more bittersweet. It’s impossible for me to imagine The Office without Steve Carell, and as of now, my feeling is that the show should go off the air once he departs next May. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I really don’t see myself watching the show beyond this year. All I can say is, it’s going to take some MAJOR brilliant writing and casting—I’m talking GENIUS level—to win me over.

THE BIG BANG THEORY (CBS, 8:30 PM)



I only started watching this last season, but it’s grown on me. The cast is uniformly strong and the writing is often clever. I’m actually interested in seeing how Penny and Leonard will relate to each other now that they’re no longer dating. It’s not a GREAT show by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s good enough to keep me coming back for more.

FRIDAY

SMALLVILLE (The CW, 8 PM)



I abandoned this show completely at one point, but I started watching again a couple of seasons ago, once Erica Durance’s Lois Lane became a regular cast member and the emphasis shifted from “Kryptonite Freak of the Week” to Tom Welling’s Clark Kent getting out of school and taking his first real steps to becoming Superman. The writing is sometimes sloppy, and the show’s budgetary constraints sometimes cripple the storytelling (the final showdown with Doomsday, anyone?), but I like the addition of so many other DC Comics characters—particularly Justin Hartley as Green Arrow and last season’s introduction of the Justice Society of America. Here’s hoping that in the show’s final hours, it gives us a satisfying confrontation with Darkseid—and depicts some kind of planetary mind wipe so that Lois, Lex Luthor, Tess Mercer, and pretty much everyone else who knows Clark Kent will forget that he has super powers. Otherwise, there’s really no point in him ever putting on the glasses, y’know?


REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER (HBO, 10 PM)



Very hit and miss. It all depends on who the guests are, and how much Maher feels like he has to fawn over them. Maher is notoriously smug and arrogant, and fawning doesn’t come easily to him. So when he does it, it just comes off as smarmy, insincere, and shameless show-biz phoniness, and it’s uncomfortable to watch. And it’s downright annoying when he has on inarticulate morons who aren’t well versed on current events and bring absolutely nothing to the conversation. (Did you see Dana Carvey’s last appearance on the show? I’m hoping it REMAINS his last appearance on the show.) But when he’s got a strong line-up of panelists—one that includes folks like Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, Amy Holmes, Chris Matthews, Cornel West, Alec Baldwin, and Thomas Friedman—who can discuss the issues intelligently, eloquently, and knowledgably, it makes for good and sometimes even enlightening viewing.

So that's my rundown. What're YOU watching?