Saturday, May 27, 2006

In Theaters: X-Men: The Last Stand

X-MEN: THE LAST STAND is perhaps better than it should have been, but not quite as good as it could have been. A lot of potentially-negative buzz swirled around the film to start, based on a leaked draft of the script, the fact that director Brian Singer was no longer on board, and that after a period of dithering around, the studio hired Brett Ratner to fill in. Ratner's filmography, which includes the 2 RUSH HOUR movies and RED DRAGON (which I liked a lot more than other people did), didn't really suggest he would be anything more than a hired gun, and because of the delays the film's production was probably hurried a bit to meet the all-important Memorial Day release deadline. It's definitely a rushed film, and there are places where it doesn't work, but other parts are really quite good, and the end result is satisfying.

The plot centers around the development of a "cure" for the mutant gene which gives the X-Men, their enemies the Brotherhood, and all mutants in general their power. The government rubber-stamps the vaccine into production, and hundreds of mutants who'd like to fit into normal society line up. But Brotherhood leader Magneto (Ian McKellen) sees this as the first step towards forced "cures" and the eradication of mutants as a whole, and starts a war to stop the cure gaining any ground. The X-Men, who fight for mutant rights, are caught in the middle- they don't want to hurt or dominate mankind the way Magneto does, but the idea of being "cured" doesn't sit well with many of them. In the meantime, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who apparently died in the last film, is reborn as a more powerful, nigh-omnipotent entity who turns on the X-Men and manages to kill a couple of key members before joining Magneto's cause.

Whether or not this is intended as the last X-Men movie is... not quite clear. The studio's hedging its bets here- the movie's called "The Last Stand", but at the same time it introduces a number of new mutant characters just as it conveniently disposes of several figures from the first two movies. Halle Berry's Storm, a minor presence in the first two movies, becomes a major player here, perhaps the result of backstage negotiations- the movie version of the character lacks the complex history of the comics figure, or really any backstory at all, so it's a bit odd to have her at the forefront all of a sudden. She gives an okay performance, mind you, but it's a bit odd. Meanwhile, Cyclops, played by James Marsden (who is in Singer's SUPERMAN RETURNS, released by a rival studio no less, so you can imagine the potential resentment) is killed offscreen in the early portion of the film, in what is the film's biggest misstep. It's obvious that the character is being written out, not for dramatic effect but because the actor was busy. Meanwhile, X-fans will welcome the screen incarnations of Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), as well as cameos by RUSHMORE's Olivia Williams as non-mutant scientist Moira McTaggert and GREY'S ANATOMY's Eric Dane as Multiple Man. The studio's closing a door, opening a window, and maybe leaving the key out.

The film does feel rushed plotwise. The basic story makes sense, it's quite compelling really, but there are those little nagging questions that come up. Minor plot holes and details that are brushed over a bit too quickly. Mentioning all of them would spoil things rotten, but in vague terms, the resolution is too quick and doesn't fully resolve the questions raised by the beginning- indeed, in terms of the vague political and thematic questions raised by the "mutant cure", it seems at first to fall in an uncomfortably pro-conformist position, arguing that the problem with mutant-human relations is just Magneto and his gang. On reflection that's not quite what was intended and not quite what's laid out, but the lack of detail makes it difficult. Certainly, if it is meant to be the end of the series, it's not. It doesn't resolve the basic conflict in any substantial way, which would be fine if they planned to get back to it later. Who knows. The "Evil Jean" plotline, lifted from the famous "Dark Phoenix" storyline from the comic books, works somewhat less well- it's interestingly plotted, but doesn't integrate into the main action. (The character is billed as "Phoenix" in the credits, but doesn't call herself that or get called that or do the whole flaming-bird-avatar thing that the comics version did, so she's still basically an insanely powerful telekinetic person.)

But the film does work on the level of its characters, which is a huge point in its favor- especially to comics fans such as myself. The performances are strong all around- Patrick Stewart and McKellen are as great as usual, Hugh Jackman's take on Wolverine is identifiable and likable (a bit of a hard job considering how overexposed the character is in comics, and how he spawned so many annoyingly badass imitators,) and Kelsey Grammer is uncannily fitting as the furry blue Beast, aka Dr. Hank McCoy. Ratner does seem to be able to elicit good performances from good actors, which isn't the rarest of assets for a director, but there you go. The action is also pretty effective, maintaining the chaotic and destructive feel of the first two movies.

On the whole, it's good, and I'm glad it managed to turn out well despite the skullduggery behind the scenes. But one wonders what might have been, and because of that one hopes this isn't all there is. Better than the first one, not as good as the second, a solid bit of entertainment.

Grade: B

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Random Movie Report #5-6: Horror Double Feature (Maniac, Zombi 3)

The recent Independent Film Channel screening of MANIAC was the kind of weird unexpected viewing opportunity that is the reason digital cable exists. Released in 1980, MANIAC was arguably the most controversial of the post-HALLOWEEN slasher movies, released unrated in the US, banned in some countries, cut in others. And while critics in general threw an amusing fit of moral outrage over the popularity of the subgenre as a whole (though, in fairness, as critics they were ordered to see an unhealthy fraction of them), it's easier to see why they got upset about this one as opposed to, say, FRIDAY THE 13th PART 3.

Joe Spinell (a character actor who appeared in both the first two GODFATHER and ROCKY movies, and who wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay with C. A. Rosenberg) plays Frank Zito, a psychopathic serial killer who kills young women (and occasionally men) in the New York area, keeping scalps and occasional bits of clothing and using them to dress mannequins he keeps in his hovel. Between murders he talks to his dead mother and himself, the murderous side continually bullying the guilty child. As a normal man he meets and begins dating Anna (Caroline Munro), a fashion photographer. That doesn't go so well, as one might imagine.

A number of elements combine to make this one of the more uncomfortably sleazy entries in an already not very respectable genre. The story is told almost entirely from Frank's point of view, and Spinnel portrays him in a way that engenders some sympathy. In this way it's reminiscent of PEEPING TOM, especially the romantic subplot, but the killings are more gruesome and even more sexualized, which makes our identification with Frank even more uncomfortable. The gore in this film, orchestrated by makeup guru Tom Savini (who also has a small role as "Disco Boy"), is fairly intense. Finally, there's a level of gritty, grimy realism here that's not present in the average slasher film (the pictures generally being more outlandish, gimmicky affairs.) It was shot almost entirely on location in New York at the height of its "great place to visit for about an hour or so" status, and the media panic as the killer keeps striking almost at random makes me wonder if the writers didn't take a page from the Son of Sam rampage. Particularly striking is a chase that takes place at a subway station in the dead of night, walls decked with graffiti and gates rusted and creaking. All of which combines to make this not a near-supernatural fantasy about an unstoppable killer terrorizing psuedo-teenagers, but an ugly little thriller about a sick man who cuts up women. It's strong stuff in some ways.

Which, unfortunately, is not to say it's good. In the end it fumbles. The climactic scenes are rushed, devolving into a silly chase and some final ludicrousness that, though a hallucination, seems to exist only because someone demanded a "horror movie" ending. The last shot is the kind of cheap, stupid ending that the slasher flick is known for. In some ways it's a relief because it makes the whole film easier to shrug off- it leaves the uncomfortable realm of authentic horror for the familiar and safe conventions. That said, I think more of this film in retrospect than I did immediately after seeing it. It stays with you.

Grade: C

Fortunately, no such inner conflicts are elicited by ZOMBI 3, the rented DVD with which I decided to round out the evening. It's just plain awful- the worst zombie film I've ever seen, and I've seen ZOMBIE LAKE. This is the film that has a flying skull, zombie birds, leaping kung-fu zombies and a helicopter chase and manages to screw up all of these things. It's the kind of film you can't even recommend to fans of the genre, and I AM a fan of the genre. As a kid I was terrified by zombies, as an adult I consider them a selling point. Just as Leslie Nielsen is funny enough that he now appears mostly in films which have no laughs and rely on his presence to make them seem funny, zombies often appear in movies which have no merit other than having zombies in them, because zombies sell. I'd say something about casting pearls before swine, but I'm giving this movie a detailed review, so who am I to talk?

So, okay. A terrorist or saboteur or something (seriously, who knows?) steals a container of "Death One", an unsubtly named biowarfare agent, from a U.S. (possibly) weapons lab. In the pursuit a gunman shoots open the container, which dribbles its toxic contents on the spy, who instead of seeking medical attention checks into a hotel. There he drinks a lot of water, turns into a green zombie and kills a maid. The military place the building under quarantine, shoot everyone (offscreen), bury the bodies in a mass grave (offscreen), and burn the zombie (we sort of see this, I think.) The ashes go up into the air, birds drop from the sky and then reanimate, and attack a group of people in an RV as three off-duty soldiers are trying to flirt with them. One woman gets badly bitten and the soldiers and vacationers take her to- not just a hotel, but the same hotel, now overgrown and decaying. Some woman and her idiot boyfriend also stumble across the birds, he gets bitten, she goes to an old abandoned gas station to try and get water (lots of people need water in this movie), and there she's attacked by zombies. Zombies also start attacking the camper/soldier group, a stash of assault weapons is discovered in the hotel (I am not making any of this up, stop looking at me like that,) and meanwhile, the scientists in the research lab (led by a guy who looks a lot like Niles Crane) try to persuade the military to let them find a cure while the military favors a policy of killing every living thing in the contaminated area. By the way, I'm not spoiling anything by saying that the bulk of those scenes could be cut without having any impact on the story whatsoever. Color commentary is provided by "Blue Heart," a DJ who goes on some weird New-Age vaguely rastaesque tangents before reporting mass murders and cannibalism and the like.

The director's credit on this film officially goes to Lucio Fulci, who made the earlier ZOMBIE (aka ZOMBI 2- DAWN OF THE DEAD was called ZOMBI when released in Italy, with these two films promoted as unofficial sequels, a not uncommon practice in the country.) However, he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized while making the film, and when recovered refused to go back to a project he had no interest in to begin with. Bruno Mattei and co-writer Claudio Fragasso took over, and Fulci's material comprises some fourty or fifty minutes of the completed film. Which is a way of saying that none of it makes any sense (although SUPERMAN II was filmed in much the same way.) Characters make decisions that are stupid even by the standards of horror movie characters, various "shock" effects are given ludicrous setups, and even the zombies themselves are inconsistently portrayed. In most scenes they're your traditional lurching, groaning monsters. In others they can talk, perform acrobatic feats and wield machetes. One character becomes a zombie within an instant of being bitten, others seem to take hours. Gunshots kill them, but then you've got the aforementioned flying skull.

The film making no sense would be forgivable- Italian horror has never been that strong on plot anyhow. But it doesn't even work on a brainless level. The action sequences are horribly staged, spatially incoherent (as in a scene where zombies swarm over one man while a woman stands mere feet away completely unmolested) and laughably cheap. At some points the soldiers obviously just wave their prop guns back and forth, the zombies falling to the ground on cue with nary a squib in sight. At another point a character throws a grenade not at a group of attacking zombies but the shed just behind them. The zombies themselves leap out of the most random "hiding" places imaginable (at one point getting up from under piles of hay) and leap from high poles and trees where they were presumably waiting for prey to wander by. Finally, all the attacks and chases are horribly drawn out, until you reach the point that you realize that yes, the filmmakers have managed to make zombies boring. The characters are forgettable to the last, of course, and the dialogue- well, dubbed movies usually have bad dialogue so I won't belabor that.

There's a lot of gore, none of it terribly shocking. There are maybe a few interesting visuals, as with a scene in an improbably vast lagoon that almost seems to have flooded the hotel surrounding it. There are bits of story that could have worked if any of them had been developed. And there's the last scene, which, while stupid as Hell and a blatant sequel hook, is a blatant sequel hook for a movie that sounds a lot more interesting than the film which just finished. (Needless to say ZOMBI 4, like the others before it, had nothing to do with any prior installments.) What we have here is an exploitation film that fails to deliver even on an exploitation level. There are zombies, and guns, and explosions, and watching this film will make you reconsider your enthusiasm for all of these things.

Grade: D

(P.S. - In case I ever do a multiple-movie post again, anyone know how to make two images appear side by side as opposed to on top of each other?)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Random Movie Report #4: Futureworld


FUTUREWORLD is one of those kinds of movies. I'm going to have to define a term for them, but they're the ones where, if this happens to be on TV, and I'm flipping through channels, I will gladly stop and watch regardless of circumstances. Films like JAWS, Carpenter's THE THING, I'm sure you have your own lists. For me they tend to be slick, well-made, not-too-demanding genre thrillers, not emotionally draining or too intellectually challenging, but solid entertainment. "Comfort movies", perhaps. Steakhouse entertainment, straightforward, well-done, not too fancy. I dunno.

FUTUREWORLD is the sequel to Michael Crichton's WESTWORLD, the mildly famous 1973 sci-fi thriller about Delos, a futuristic amusement park where patrons get to act out heroic fantasies with a supporting cast of robots, always triumphing over evil gunslingers and bedding robot women (which apparently didn't sound as creepy back then), until finally the robots get tired of losing and start killing the guests. It's known basically for the image of Yul Brynner as the robotic Gunslinger shooting one of the main characters before pursuing the other through the park's lower levels. It was memorable but even by action-thriller standards didn't make a whole lot of sense- why does the robot Gunslinger have a real gun to start with? Why does anyone in the park have a real weapon and not a prop? (Even assuming the "nothing can go wrong" stance of Delos management, which I'm sure the insurance company LOVED hearing, and a scene where the guns were shown to have special bullets that avoided heat i.e. warm bodies, would it not just be cheaper to use fakes, have some squibs and blood bags on the robots so they can "die" convincingly with only routine maintenance needs, etc.?) The sequel actually manages to explain the huge logical gaps of the first movie, while telling a substantially different story.

Peter Fonda is a newspaper reporter who gets a tip about something suspicious behind the re-opening of Delos, from a contact who conveniently dies before he can give any real information. Fonda's character meets up with an old flame turned TV anchor (played by Blythe Danner), and they're both assigned to take a look at the new park and hopefully generate some good publicity to offset the whole "a bunch of people died here once" problem. They're joined by a batch of world leader types (the resort being the ultra-pricey sort, which it would have to be) and a hickster game show winner, and led around by an uncomfortably friendly Delos executive played by Arthur Hill (who was in the film version of Crichton's ANDROMEDA STRAIN.) Fonda starts getting a little suspicious of the goings-on at the new Delos, and drags Danner along investigating the park's shadowy underbelly.

FUTUREWORLD was produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff at American International, and does feel a bit cheaper than its predecessor (though it apparently cost more), with a made-for-TV quality. It has its own gaps in logic, of the conventional movie variety- the tipster who has information but for some reason can't give it over the phone, the protagonists easily sneaking around a high security installation, etc. I found these a bit less glaring, if only because they've almost become genre conventions. The one major flaw in the film is a bizarre "dream machine" sequence featuring Danner's character which only really exists as a pretext for an extended cameo by Yul Brynner as the Gunslinger (who was again mentioned prominently in advertising, and still is on some of the various video covers.) It starts out interestingly enough but finishes with a bizarre romantic interlude involving red ropes and dancing and Brynner being utterly expressionless.

On the upside, this is basically just a fun, very old-fashioned thriller, with Fonda and Danner exhibiting a cute 1940s chemistry. The main actors are all pretty good, and Stuart Margolin (Angel on THE ROCKFORD FILES) has an amusing part as a plumbing technician who lives with a faceless malfunctioning robot. If that sounds goofy, it is, and that's probably part of the film's charm- there are a lot of odd, quirky little things going on that make watching the picture a fun experience. There's a sequence where Fonda and Danner face off with doubles of themselves who have all the original's memories. As the two Danners train guns on each other, the clone remarks, "It's a good thing father taught us how to shoot. Maybe we shouldn't have worried so much about whether he loved us." And there's the theme music, a nice five-note motif played repeatedly on strings. (The score, by Fred Karlin, seems to have been done with a fairly small orchestra, and is surprisingly effective.)

There's no Region 1 DVD of this film just yet, and no apparent release planned. It does show up on TV occasionally, most recently having popped up on one of the Showtime networks. Watch it and tell me I'm not crazy. It's a fun little flick.

Directed by Richard T. Heffron
Written by George Schenck and Mayo Simon

Grade: B

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Random Movie Report #3: Eyes Without A Face


EYES WITHOUT A FACE is the story of Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a surgeon whose lovely daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) is horribly disfigured in an accident. Having done some research into skin transplantation, Génessier tries a novel approach: kidnapping young girls, removing their faces and transplating them onto the space on his daughter's head where a face ought to be. It's your classic macabre Euro-thriller setup, the tone set early on by an opening on a lonely country road and a skeletal theme by Maurice Jarre.

Then it gets weird(er). Instead of following the standard horror-mystery structure, the film unfolds in a slow, almost dreamlike manner, taking time to establish the place- the country house, the lab beneath, the dog kennel next door- and concentrating on Christiane's own sense of imprisonment, both in the house and the mask she wears. The ugliness of the crimes (the film is surprisingly gory for 1959) is offset by our perverse interest into whether Génessier can actually make this thing work.

The Criterion DVD suffers from an occasionally overbright transfer (and I tried dialing down the brightness and picture settings on the TV); this doesn't make much of a difference, but it's a bit odd for them. It's worth a look anyway, and not just for apparently inspiring a Billy Idol song.

Director: Georges Franju
Writers: Pierre Boileau, Pierre Fascar, Thomas Narcejac, Jean Redon, Claude Sautet
From the novel by Jean Redon

Grade: A-

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Kirsty Maccoll- A Tribute


When it comes to music, I'm not half as well-travelled as I'd like to be. I've got a passing acquaintance with most of the major bands and have a vague idea of what's popular these days, but that's mostly based on heavy viewing of VH1 back when they showed BEHIND THE MUSIC 12 hours a day. Nonetheless, as the saying goes, I know what I like. And I like Kirsty Maccoll. Some credit goes to an online friend who recommended her to me after I'd picked up Tracey Ullman's first album (which is a matter for another post); I picked up Maccoll's "Best of" CD and was slowly hooked. This was in the summer of '01, already after her untimely death, and there was a certain bittersweetness (if that's a word) to discovering her less than a year after she'd passed on, made worse by the consensus that she was apparently a really cool, nice woman. But I'm no biographer, and this post is about her work, or rather the fraction of it I've experienced. Though Kirsty was never a big star, her career spanned twenty-some years, and as a "musician's musician" she did a lot of backing and collaborative work with people like Morrissey, the Pogues, and Evan Dando. The best word to describe her would be eclectic- she never really settled on one style.

The thing that really stands out about Kirsty Maccoll's work is that it's both very smart and very pretty, two qualities which don't seem to go together very often in music. I can't even begin to name all the indie or cult bands and artists who seem to offer great lyrics but sandpaper vocals, or can't resist the urge to be just plain depressing (not to impugn all artists with scratchy voices or bleak world views, but you get the idea.) Kirsty was a great songwriter, with vibrant, poetic lyrics, but also a good sense of humor and an ear for good instrumentation. Her voice was also unique, rich and soft but also hard and steady, a brick wrapped in velvet. You don't hear that kind of texture very often, and I prefer it to the American Idol/bel canto/diva approach that's become increasingly popular. But I don't want to turn this into a rant against how everything sucks now. Let's just say that Kirsty's talent was overlooked, and that artists could do worse than to learn some lessons from her, and move on to some album recommendations.

Galore: The Best of Kirsty Maccoll (1995)- A good starting point (it worked for me.) Shows off the breadth of her work, from girl-group tribute to country pastiche to Latin to pub rock to protest music. Also features her famous duet with Shane MacGowan on "Fairytale of New York", and another Pogues project with "Miss Otis Regrets."

Electric Landlady (1991)- Her first dollop with Latin music, which would become a major interest. Sort of a light album, not so much in terms of subject matter but in the airy, smooth arrangements and delicately pensive tone.

Titanic Days (1993)- Apparently hard to find nowadays, but worth hunting down- there are a lot of really great songs here, with a generally darker tone. The title track is a short epic about a thrilling but obviously doomed relationship, driving forward with reckless abandon (at least that's my interpretation, I'm frequently wrong about such things.) Very ambitious, possibly my favorite.

Tropical Brainstorm (2000) Kirsty's last album, reflecting the culmination of her Latin influence. Extremely lush and gorgeous sounding, with some clever blending of tracks and very unusual sampling (see if you can pick out the "Galaga" sound effects.) Hunt down the American release of this album (it has Kirsty's face on the cover)- it includes a few bonus tracks and a music video.

More information and a complete discography (plus lyrics, chords, etc.) can be found on KirstyMaccoll.com, the foremost fan site for the artist. Get to listening.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Why You Should Be Watching the New Doctor Who


The new DOCTOR WHO has been airing in America for a couple of months now (Fridays on the Sci-Fi Channel at 9/8c), and it's near the end of its first season run (the second being well underway in its native Britain.) If you haven't been following it, May 5's episode is a great place to jump in, kicking off a two-part epic written by COUPLING's Steven Moffatt. I got to see the series thanks to the R2 DVD releases, well after it had aired in Britain but some time before Sci Fi even picked it up, so I can safely say you're in for a treat.

The Doctor is an alien adventurer who flies around the cosmos and back and forth in time in a machine called the TARDIS, fighting evil and saving the universe and generally having a good time. His partner is Rose Tyler, a shop girl from modern day London who's enjoying the opportunity to lead a less-boring life. Craziness ensues.

So what's good about it? In brief, it's one of the most purely fun shows on television. Shows like 24 and the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA embrace a "grim and gritty" approach to drama, which I suppose reflects our modern post-9/11 anxieties about the world, but it's been the dominant tone in big and small screen drama for a while now, and it's great to see a series come along that's just plain joyful. There are tense and sad scenes, and tragic things occur, but on the whole the show doesn't let us forget that the Doctor and Rose are on an Adventure, fighting the good fight and seeing all sorts of wonderful things. Even the saddest episode, the recently aired "Father's Day", has a certain sweetness to it- this is not a cynical program.

Christopher Eccleston brings a wonderful intensity to his performance as the Doctor, who's haunted by the destruction of his home world in an enigmatic 'Time War' but reacts with boundless enthusiasm to a meeting with Charles Dickens or the arrival of a spaceship in 20th century London. (In the UK, Eccleston's already been replaced by David Tennant, who's gotten good notices as well.) Billie Piper, who plays Rose, was actually a pop star in the Britney mode before proving her acting chops in a miniseries version of "The Canterbury Tales", and is never less than charming and thoroughly believable in her role. The show is more character driven than its earlier 1963-1989 incarnation, reflecting modern TV drama, but still captures the endlessly imaginative and adventurous spirit of the original.

The upcoming Sci-Fi Channel episode, "The Empty Child," features a visit to WWII London, the introduction of rogue time traveller Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), and a new monster-of-the-week who- well, I don't want to spoil things, but I'll say that while I've gotten tired of the "spooky kid" cliché from numerous horror movie trailers, this is a unique twist. The end of the second episode, "The Doctor Dances," affirms everything I've come to love about this show. So, watch it, TiVo it, do whatever you need to do to jump on board. You're missing out.

As for British readers- you lucky bastards are already getting the second season. You don't need my endorsement.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Random Movie Report #2: The Curse of Frankenstein


Released in 1957, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was the first of Hammer's Technicolor horror epics (it was released as just plain FRANKENSTEIN in the UK, and retitled in the US to avoid confusion with the Universal film.) I'm not the most familiar with the works of Hammer, except for the QUATERMASS movie series and the rather overlooked ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN. I found HORROR OF DRACULA, this film's counterpart, easier to respect than to love, but I was fourteen at the time. I decided to start looking into this influential and much-loved group of films again, and so this ended up in my Netflix queue.

Peter Cushing is Baron Victor Frankenstein, who, as an orphan, is tutored by Paul Krempe (played by Robert Urquhart.) The two strike up a friendship and become fellow scientific researchers, and their experiments start involving things like the nervous system and huge amounts of electricity. After they successfully bring a dead puppy back to life, Victor decides to go one step further, and well, you know what he's thinking. Krempe is uncertain about the whole affair, especially when Victor starts handing out bribes to get fresh eyeballs and the hands of a legendary sculptor for his creation, and things get more awkward when his fiancé Elizabeth (the shapely Hazel Court) comes to visit the castle.

This film's Frankenstein is a bit more actively evil than previous versions- in search of a good brain, he murders an elderly scientist who comes to visit, and carries on an affair with the maid Justine (Valerie Gaunt.) It's an interesting take on the story, but on the down side, the whole business is awfully slow to get going. When you see a Frankenstein picture you're going to see the creature, and the dynamic sequence where the creature comes to life, and the creature rampaging through the countryside. All these things happen, but only in the second half, and there's plenty of talk to get through before then. Paul almost becomes an annoyance- he's one of the good guys, but since his moral qualms compel him to keep trying to talk Frankenstein out of bringing his monster to life, he's essentially obstructing the forward motion of the plot and you wish he'd just get out of the way.

The payoff does make up for it, though. The Creature himself is played by Christopher Lee, just before the Dracula role would propel him to fame, and his is a ghoulish, almost zombielike portrayal, aided by a unique makeup job (Universal apparently threatened to sue should this film's monster look too much like the Jack Pierce design.) He's less childlike and sympathetic in the role than Karloff, but he makes up for it with genuine menace.

Early entries in a series are sometimes a bit crude, or at least don't quite indicate where things will end up going. CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN seems to be carefully stepping into the Gothic intensity that Hammer's Sixties output is known for; you've got some blood and gore (there's a scene of Frankenstein purchasing eyeballs from a mortuary that seems to have been shot entirely as a pickup- we don't see either Cushing's or the other actor's face the whole time), women in nightgowns and tight bodices, and loud brassy music, but not dialed up too high since the studio had no idea that it would catch on. It should be interesting to compare later entries (though the problem with Netflix is you can receive a film well after you've forgotten the reason you wanted to see it.)

Grade: B

I'll probably do a non-movie post next time just to mix it up.