Sunday, October 31, 2010

Monsterthon: The Bookshelf: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula and his ladies- plus an Amazon link

I’ve made two unsuccessful attempts at reading DRACULA before. Both times I seem to recall enjoying it, but some other assignment or event compelled me to put it aside for long enough that I figured I probably ought to start all over again. This Halloween season I resolved that I would finally make it all the way through this classic of horror literature, and so I can complete Monsterthon by paying tribute to one of monsterdom’s elder statesmen.

The story, told entirely in correspondence and diary entries, begins with Johnathan Harker, a London real estate clerk, heading to Transylvania to finalize some sale documents with the mysterious Count Dracula, who is planning to buy the Carfax estate in England. As days pass, Johnathan works out that the Count is keeping him a prisoner, and that he is more than just an elderly aristocrat. He manages to escape, but in the time it takes him to get back to England, Dracula has already arrived on a ship whose crew were wiped out under mysterious circumstances. The Count sets his sights on Lucy Westenra, a friend of Johnathan’s fiancee Mina, and begins luring her out sleepwalking and feeding on her blood. Lucy’s betrothed Lord Arthur Goldamring, as well as asylum director Dr. Seward and Mina herself, notice a change in Lucy’s condition, and Seward summons his friend Professor Van Helsing, an elderly gentleman with some knowledge of things beyond the realm of known science. Van Helsing is too late to save Lucy from dying, but helps her friends to release her from the curse of vampirism that follows; afterwards, knowing Count Dracula’s intentions, they must protect Mina from becoming another of his brides.

An interesting thing about this book is that Dracula himself is barely in it. He gets a lot of “page time” during the early scenes in Transylvania, but in England he becomes mostly an external force, working through visions and animal guises, as well as through his slave Renfield, a fly-eating madman. Part of the reason for this is that the heroes are careful to avoid directly confronting the Count, who at night is basically too powerful for mortals to face and live. He is powerless during the day (though not actually burned by sunlight as would become the standard), but makes sure to appear rarely during such times. Though Bram Stoker famously based the character in part on Vlad Tepes (aka Vlad the Impaler), the references are more direct in the book than in any adaptation I’ve seen, with the possible exception of Francis Ford Coppola’s film- Van Helsing hypothesizes that Dracula was once a great leader who for whatever reason made a pact with dark magical forces and was turned into a prince of the undead. The physical description of the Count is very much like that of Vlad, and the explicity aristocratic background blurs and offsets some of the anti-Semitic origins of much vampire lore. The Count’s air of nobility makes him a fascinating character even though we rarely see him.

Perhaps the other thing that stood out to me when reading this book was how nice everyone is to each other; the heroes at times seem like embodiments of Christian virtue, ever patient in times of stress, ever faithful in the face of Satanic evil, and always seeking to treat each other well. This fits the style of much contemporary literature, and of course these are mostly affluent-or-better people raised to conduct themselves in a certain way, but as we’re reading their own thoughts in diary form, they come across as just plain decent folk. It can feel, at times, a little too cosy or twee; in particular Van Helsing’s broken English and folksy manner can be a little much over 300+ pages. That said, it does come off as sincere, and it creates a strong contrast between the elemental conflict of good and evil that is the book’s story. I don’t doubt this is what helped it resonate with audiences at the time and beyond; we’re not just scared of the monster but genuinely engaged with the protagonists, and this adds power later on when the story goes into a truly epic climactic pursuit.

Even though I was going through it the third time around, there’s definitely a wonderful touching sadness to Lucy’s fate, and while I’m not sure whether readers at the time were expecting her to live or die, most of us have been spoiled by film adaptations in the meantime. She’s as sympathetic a character as Mina, and doesn’t really deserve her fate- despite the much-talked-about undertones of Victorian sexuality in the book, there’s no sense that she’s being punished for any particular sin, just an innocent who wandered out onto the wrong moor.

There’s a lot of preparation and anticipation in the book, which makes it move slowly at times. This is primarily an artifact of the Victorian style of literature, though if H.G. Wells was largely able to cut through the crap Stoker doesn’t have much of an excuse. But there is tension, and emotion, and some genuine eeriness in the best passages. It’s easy to see how the book made the impact it did, and crystallized our perception of the vampire in popular culture. Not quite a masterpiece, but still a great page-turner.

Grade: A-

P.S. If anyone knows who the above image is by, I'll be sure to credit it. I can't quite read the signature at this resolution.

Happy Halloween!

Monsterthon: Random Who Report: The Curse of Fenric (1989)

Curse of Fenric DVD cover and Amazon link
Picking a “monster-centric” installment of DOCTOR WHO seems kind of difficult, since monsters are a major part of the show on any given week. But some stories are more horrific than others, and “Curse of Fenric” is arguably the most Halloweeny of them all. It aired during the final season of the show’s original run, when few people were watching despite a really admirable creative recovery. After the show’s hiatus and a jumbled creative period during Colin Baker’s last season and Sylvester McCoy’s first, script editor Andrew Cartmel and producer John Nathan-Turner came up with a unique “master plan” to return some mystery to the character of the Doctor by making him more than another Time Lord, and darkening the tone of the show a bit. McCoy’s Doctor, originally just a broad clown type, became more of a grand manipulator, with a friendly and humorous exterior hiding some deep and almost callous calculation. “The Curse of Fenric” takes this approach to a rather grim extreme in a dark and scary story of soldiers, vikings, and mutant vampires from the future.

The TARDIS lands on a British naval base during World War II, the Doctor (McCoy) wanting to meet with a Dr. Judson (Dinsdale Linden), a wheelchair-bound cryptographic expert working on the British Ultima Machine, a massive codecracking computer. The base and town itself have been built on top of old Viking settlements, and in the basement of the local church Judson and others are investigating ancient runes and a legend of a treasure the Vikings stole from somewhere in the east, a treasure bearing a terrible curse. A group of Russian soldiers have shown up hoping to steal the device (or at least the relatively small central component of it), while the curse starts to awaken due to the efforts of Judson and others, include companion Ace (Sophie Aldred), who gives him the idea to run the latest set of runes through the Ultima Machine. The program triggered awakens legions of the dead and drowned from the ocean, now turned into mutant bloodthirsty Haemovores, and in time releases Fenric himself, a bodiless ancient evil force from the dawn of time, who lost a contest with the Doctor centuries ago and is itching for a rematch.

The Doctor is playing a long game from the start, never telling Ace- or, for that matter, us- why he’s here until he absolutely has to. A sense of mystery and uncertainty runs through the story, as we’re not sure what all these plot threads have to do with each other for the first couple of episodes. It’s engaging enough not to be frustrating, but it shows how the manipulative nature of the Doctor was changing how the standard formula worked; instead of exploring and seeking out new evils to combat, the Doctor is driven places by what he’s done before and what he has to do now to bring his plans together. For once he’s opposed by an equally manipulative enemy; Fenric turns out to have engineered not only many of the events in this story, but events in episodes from seasons past (including ones that didn’t really make sense at the time.)

The effect of all this on Ace is particularly interesting; though she doesn’t strictly have a lot of agency in the plot, the story is in some ways about her faith in the Doctor and how it’s tested by these events. She develops emotional attachments to people who end up being expendable pawns in the larger game, whether they’re killed by Haemovores, soldiers, or Fenric himself. In an interesting expansion of this theme, faith turns out to be the one thing to which the Haemovores are vulnerable- instead of being repelled by crucifixes and communion wafers, the Haemovores are driven back by the psychic power of human belief, whatever it happens to be in. The Soviet Commander Sorin (Tomek Bork) repels them through his faith in the revolution, at one point wielding his Red Star pin like a cross; the kindly and thoughtful Rev. Wainwright (Nicholas Parsons), on the other hand, has trouble, because the horrors of war have strained his belief in the goodness of mankind. And while in retrospect it’s a fairly obvious liberal-humanist-whatever subversion that a Soviet (and so presumably atheist) soldier has more faith than a clergyman, the story doesn’t really bludgeon us with this and we’re left with the sense that Wainwright is a decent person.

The story is bleak stuff, just about as bleak as DOCTOR WHO can or really should get; lots of innocent people die in a very unpleasant way, and the atmosphere is that of a horror film throughout. For a show that, especially near the end, was contending with low production values and short schedules, “Curse of Fenric” looks gorgeous, with lovely location work, lashings of rain and fog, and impressive battle scenes. The incidental score by Mark Ayres is particularly lovely. The Haemovores themselves are strikingly ugly- a little rubbery in close-up, perhaps, but the visual is nice. The Ancient One (Raymond Trickitt), a beast from humanity’s chemical-poisoned future brought back in time by Fenric to sire the other Haemovores, is a particularly interesting creation.

An epic story like this can’t always go right, and despite writer Ian Brigg’s admirable attempts to pull everything together there are some less effective parts. The arc of Jean (Joann Kenny) and Phyllis (Joanne Bell), two bawdy London evacuees watched over by a shrill caretaker (Janet Henfrey), has a weirdly puritanical slasher-movie element to it that rings a little false, and I’m not sure they were the best people to deliver some of the more melodramatic dialogue. It’s a bit unclear why there’s no concerted attempt to get at least some people off-base when the Haemovores attack, and at some points the characters run around not being too inconvenienced by the danger. There’s also a scene where Ace attempts to distract a prison guard that, due to the limitations of family television, just turns out weird. On the other hand, Aldred is pretty good throughout, especially in her interaction with Kathleen (Cory Pulman), a radio operator who’s raising an adorable baby whom Ace falls totally in love with. She looks good in forties get-up, too.

The story had to have some of it edited out for time when it was first broadcast, though the VHS release restored those moments and the DVD offers them as part of an expanded feature presentation with some CGI-enhanced effects. The additional scenes aren’t essential but they do expand on a few things, and they point to just how much background the story really has. “Curse of Fenric” is a triumph of style, but has a lot of substance to it as well; it really shows how unfortunate it was that the show was cut off just as it was finding its legs again. It’s not my favorite DOCTOR WHO story or even my favorite story from the McCoy years, but it’s one of the show’s classics and a scary good time nonetheless.

Written by Ian Briggs
Directed by Nicholas Mallett
Produced by John Nathan-Turner
Aired October 25-November 15, 1989

Grade: A

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Monsterthon: Random Movie Report #82: The Dunwich Horror

Dunwich Horror poster and DVD link
When I put up DIE, MONSTER, DIE! I couldn’t help but notice that it’s sold as a double feature with THE DUNWICH HORROR, another surreal early H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. I’d actually seen it about a year previously, and it struck me as just odd and goofy enough to go through again. It’s sort of a monster story, and also an occult film, and also just plain shit that be freaky. As far as I can tell, AIP started producing versions of Lovecraft’s work because they ran out of Edgar Allan Poe stories, and this was before the received wisdom that the author’s work was unadaptable. This film may well be where the recieved wisdom got going, because as unusual as it is, it’s not really a successful horror picture by any measure. It is entertaining and a cultural artifact of sorts, which means it’s still worth writing about. And well, some of you might wanna see it.

Dean Stockwell is Wilbur Whateley, last son of a strange clan of folk on the outskirts of Dunwich, Massachusetts. For generations they’ve worshipped weird gods from outside our dimension, and Wilbur shows up at Miskatonic University in Arkham (now located back in the states) in hopes of looking over their copy of the Necronomicon, a book which deals with the Outer Gods and associated madness. He gets just a brief look at the book, but manages to charm the heck out of comely undergrad Nancy (Sandra Dee) and lure her back to his family’s crumbling estate. It seems he’s got her in mind for a kind of ritual to invoke the god Yog-Sothoth and open the gates between our world and that of the Outer Gods. Wilbur’s father (Sam Jaffe) tried this ritual some time ago, and it resulted in Wilbur’s birth, and also... something else getting through. Something in the attic. After Nancy’s been gone a while, Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley the elder) and an assistant (Donna Baccala) show up looking for her, and have to put the pieces together in time to prevent the ritual.

In updating Lovecraft’s story to the modern day, the filmmakers took an interesting approach, incorporating imagery from the then-current pagan and occult revival. The fusion of Wiccan and New Age lore with Lovecraft’s unique brand of cosmic nihilism creates an unusual atmosphere, heightened by some trippy dream/hallucination sequences an a memorable score composed by Les Baxter. (Firesign Theater fans will recognize the theme from its use in the “Mark Time” sketch.) On the one hand this dates the picture, on the other it makes for a ncie time capsule.

The decision to shift the focus of the story onto Wilbur also has some unusual effects; in the story, Wilbur dies fairly early in an attempt to steal the Necronomicon, which is what tips off the main characters that something is very wrong at Dunwich. Instead he’s made into a kind of antihero, with Nancy mostly being a passive target of his creepy advances while Armitage rumbles around Massachusetts trying to work out what’s going on. The character is almost made sympathetic at times, shown to be a target of religious prosecution within the community; the fact that he actually is trying to call down destructive monsters from beyond time and space kind of undercuts this, though, and it feels like a weird attempt to invoke counterculture sympathy without really thinking through all the ramifications. Still, this focus does allow Dean Stockwell to dominate the picture, and his presence is kind of hypnotic- you can see how Wilbur is both charismatic and off-putting. Nancy herself, as well as the whole love story/mating ritual subplot, is a late addition, but I have to say the new elements are better integrated into the original story than one would think.

The film’s major problem is one of pacing; there are a number of slack parts, several scenes in Dunwich where it seems that Nancy and her would-be rescuers are missing each other by pure coincidence, and the third act just kind of collapses due to all the padding. Of course, it doesn’t help that the final confrontation is one of the goofiest you could put on film, and with Armitage being such a minor presence it’s hard to really work out what the heck he’s doing or how he knows to do it.

Ultimately these issues do drag the film down, but it retains some historical value if nothing else. It’s a picture that really couldn’t have been made at any other time, and the inherent weirdness of the original story shines through enough to make this a unique viewing experience. I would recommend it for the curious, as well as people who like Lovecraft’s work but aren’t purists about it. I like the crazy pictures, even when they’re not really all that good.

Based on the story by H. P. Lovecraft
Screenplay by Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum, and Ronald Silkosky
Directed by Daniel Haller

Grade: C+

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Monsterthon: The Comics Page #26: Essential Godzilla

Essential Godzilla cover and Amazon linkI promised you monster comics and I will deliver. Godzilla has been in a number of comics over the years, and his first American appearances were with Marvel starting in 1977. Marvel not only bought the license from Toho for a couple of years, but actually brought Godzilla into the Marvel universe for that time, having him face S.H.I.E.L.D., Hercules, the Fantastic Four, even the amazing Spider-Man at one point. Four years ago the Essentials collection of this series was released, but the cost of licensing meant that it had only one print run, meaning it’s probably a little hard to find, but if you’re a Godzilla fan and can tolerate some off-model art, it’s pretty fun.

The story of the comic, such as it is, is that Godzilla, at some point after his initial rampage, ended up trapped in an ice floe just off the coast of Alaska. A warm winter and warmer spring end up setting him free, and the international spy group S.H.I.E.L.D. is the one organization with the manpower and artillery required to combat the great beast as he rampages across America for the first time. The group’s #1 hero Nick Fury is elsewhere for most of the comic’s run, so it falls to the bowler-hatted, cigar-chomping Dum Dum Dugan to lead a multiethnic crew (including an elderly scientist who survived Godzilla’s first rampage, and his grandson who thinks Godzilla’s not that bad) and a small army against the king of the monsters. Godzilla also runs up against the mutant hordes of the monster breeder Dr. Demonicus, a group of super-monsters from space, a giant robot named Red Ronin, and even some cowboys.

Old school Godzilla fans will probably be taken aback by some of the liberties taken with the monster’s design; it’s nothing as radical as in that one film that I and only I like, but it’s still distinctly different from anything we saw in the movies. Herb Trimpe, who pencilled most of the series, came up with an interesting, slightly dinosaur-like variant on the classic look, with a much larger head than normal and gem-like eyes. He’s bright green and the fire he breathes is orange instead of the traditional blue, but both of those don’t really matter in an Essentials volume for obvious reasons. Overall the art is pretty solid- it closely follows the Marvel house style of the period, with some nice splash page work and even a little aping of Kirby when Godzilla meets Devil Dinosaur (long story.)

You won’t be seeing any of Godzilla’s Toho buddies like Rodan or Mothra in the series; Toho treated all these characters as separate licenses (a practice continued for the Dark Horse comics, though apparently not any of the video games), and so the big scaly hero has to fight a host of original creations. Some are more memorable than others, though the giant ape-like Yetrigan and the aforementioned Red Ronin are nice additions. The writers do put Godzilla in some very interesting situations, most notably in a multi-issue arc where he’s hit by Dr. Hank Pym’s reducing gas, initially shrinking him down to rat size as he explores Manhattan from the ground up, then slowly returning him to normal size. The occasional story like this, that would only really work in comics given the limitations of late 70s special effects, helps break up the more traditional monster action. There are also some nice, though characteristically overwrought, human vignettes, such as one about the plight of a compulsive gambler on the one day Godzilla decides to visit Las Vegas.

The main attraction is really Godzilla mingling with the big names of the Marvelverse. The hotheaded Col. Duggan is a great foil for him, always frustrated when his plans fail, and an early battle with B-list supergroup The Champions (which includes two former X-Men) at the Golden Gate Bridge is a highlight. Technically, Godzilla’s adventures in the Marvelverse are still canon, although licensing issues prevent his resurfacing (a later story implied that Doctor Demonicus successfully mutated him into a non-infringing beast that was easily dispatched, but we all know Godzilla’s toughter than that.) As I’ve said before there’s a nice comraderie and distinctive atmosphere to Marvel’s stuff in the 70s, and adding a celebrity monster was a nice touch.

Godzilla’s time with Marvel was brief, but it was a really solid run; goofy, strange, but never failing to deliver the requisite destruction and mindless violence you can always count on the character to deliver. The art is quirky, the stories creative if ridiculous, the prose borderline Claremontian- it’s the Bronze Age in all its gaudy glory. The people who will love this should know who they are.

Written by Doug Moench
Pencils by Herb Trimpe and Tom Sutton
Inks by Way Too Many People To Name

Grade: B+

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Monsterthon: Random Movie Report #81: Candyman

Our next entry straddles the line between a monster, a villain, and a supernatural force. I didn’t quite know what to expect from CANDYMAN, despite having already seen the wretched third entry in the series; written and directed by Bernard Rose, from a short story by Clive Barker, it’s an outright unique look at myths and legends, and how we give them power and use them to seek to explain things. It’s one of the breed of slick, classy horror films that started to arise in the late 80s and early 90s, after the slasher genre had burned out, and it has the skill and polish of the best of them, plus a lot of imagination and some really shocking plot developments. It’s going to be hard to describe this one now that I don’t have a cutter anymore.

The Candyman (played by Tony Todd) is a combination of the “hook-handed killer” and the Bloody Mary routine (not the drink)- the story goes, if you look into a mirror and say his name five times, he appears and guts you like a fish. Helen Riley (Virginia Madsen) is a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, doing a study on urban legends, and finds out that the Candyman is blamed for the brutal murder of a woman that took place years ago in Cabrini Green, a gang-dominated project where the police don’t go. Helen, with her partner Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons, who was apparently getting cast as the black best friend in horror movies a lot during this time), investigates, and uncovers some information which may indicate that the killer was just a flesh-and-blood human being. By doing this, however, she threatens the existence of the Candyman, who lives as a legend in the fears of the locals. He’s not happy about this, and sets out to make her pay.

It’s easy to imagine what most filmmakers would do with this premise; that is, turn it into a NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET reprise with a large cast of young adults being killed off by the supernatural spectre. What happens is much more personal and brutal than that, and while Barker’s role as executive producer probably gave him some control over how his material was adapted, Bernard Rose’s approach is genuinely inspired. The Candyman is less a serial killer and more a master manipulator, the ruler of a realm of whispers and fears and mythology. He is given shape by belief, through a kind of consensus reality; early in the picture, both Helen and Bernadette do the “Candyman” routine at the bathroom mirror in the former’s apartment to no apparent effect, because the myth has no power over them yet; as he grows in Helen’s mind, however, it seems he can cross over into the physical world.

Along with the postmodernist take on the nature of reality, there’s also an interesting bit of racial politics involved in the story. The Candyman legend holds that he was originally the son of a freed slave in 1890s Chicago who had an affair with a white woman, and for that was hunted down by a white mob and brutally lynched. There’s an echo of that story in his newfound fascination with the white Helen, but what she’s done has its own connotations; there’s a sense that she’s not just debunking an urban legend but specifically trespassing on the narrative of Cabrini Green’s mostly black inhabitants, co-opting it as white journalists and academics have often done, and it’s this appropriation which is her real crime. Of course, that itself is given a wrinkle in that the Candyman seems to be grooming her for a similar position in local folklore. It’s not that Helen was wrong to investigate, really, but she is inevitably trespassing on unfamiliar territory, and goes much deeper than she expected. Any horror film with a black male killer and white female protagonist was probably going to bring up associations like this, and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that rather than neuter those elements from the story or water it down, they instead explore the issues raised in a way that doesn’t offer pat answers but acknowledges that race is still an issue in America.

Helen remains surprisingly (but necessarily) sympathetic through all this, even though it seems at time the plot compels her not to take the wisest actions. At the risk of spoiling much, there does seem to be at least one point where she doesn’t share knowledge she seems to have that would be helpful, but I might be reading these scenes wrong. (At times the literal action is not 100% clear, though it doesn’t reach EXORCIST II levels.) A lot of this is down to Virginia Madsen being energetic and smart and frankly gorgeous, and the acting is at a pretty strong level throughout. Rose gives the $8 million production a fair amount of polish, and it has the classy atmosphere that pervaded a number of horror entries from around this time, when Hollywood took notice of the growing appeal of gothic horror literature. On top of it all there’s a truly gorgeous musical score by minimalist legend Philp Glass, which features as its centerpiece a simple, music-box theme that grows into something much more beautiful and tragic as the story unfolds.

Beauty and tragedy end up pervading the piece, which was a great surprise to me even though they’re not exactly unfamiliar themes to Barker. That a horror film can reach such a place is a sign of how the genre is really much more flexible than critics, filmmakers, and even fans can give it credit for; just because a movie’s about something supernatural and nasty does not mean that fear is the only emotion it can focus on. CANDYMAN is a minor classic, one that got me curious about Rose’s other work, and while it does have a few parts that keep it from being a genuine masterpiece (in particular the final scene is a bit cheap), the overall effect is stunning.

Based on the story “The Forbidden” by Clive Barker
Written and Directed by Bernard Rose
Grade: A-

Monday, October 25, 2010

Monsterthon: Random Movie Report #80: Die, Monster, Die!

Link to Die, Monster, Die and The Dunwich Horror on DVD
So after a theoretical Monsterfest entry dried up the project kind of stalled, but going into the final week before Halloween I’ve finally managed to come up with an acceptable alternate. (I won’t spoil the offending monsterless film by naming it, though those keen on anagrams are directed to DOWN OF LOON FLESH.) I wanted something to contrast with Gamera’s atomic-powered city-destroying antics, and I’ve found it in DIE, MONSTER, DIE, a surreal Boris Karloff vehicle that’s also a rare early attempt to try and bring H. P. Lovecraft’s work to the screen. Loosely adapted from his “The Colour Out of Space”, this 1965 B-movie is as much gothic mystery as creature feature, and while there is something of an identity crisis at work, it delivers an engaging and unique experience for the short time it runs.

Nick Adams is American student Stephen Reinhart, who travels to the small quaint village of Arkham (which is now in England for some reason) to visit the Witley estate- which, naturally, is one of those places that the townsfolk refuse to go or provide directions or transport to. So he walks there, for two reasons- to visit his fiance Susan (Suzan Farmer), and to respond to a request for help from her mother, Letitia (Freda Jackson). It seems the maid, after having taken ill, has gone missing, and strange things have been happening around the house. Susan’s father Nahum (Karloff) resents Stephen’s presence and tries to make it clear that nothing that could be going on concerns him, but there’s the mysteriously blasted earth outside the estate, the strange illness that has spread to Letitia herself, odd noises in the night, a mysterious glow from the greenhouse...

A lot of Lovecraft’s material is held to be difficult to film, as he specialized in vaguely described blasphemies that defied normal description, but “Colour Out of Space” strikes me as a particuarly odd choice; the menace there is literally a shade, a colo(u)r that saps the landscape and doesn’t resemble any recognized hue on our spectrum- and as such is nearly impossible to visualize. However, screenwriter Jerry Sohl finds an interesting analogy to Lovecraft’s living and corrupting color in radiation, with Reinhart becoming convinced that what’s landed in the countryside is a giant hunk of uranium. Which would be kind of mundane, which is why the film hedges its bets a little by introducing hints of the possibility of a supernatural element at play, something studied by the late Corbin Witley in his research into ancient outer gods; research which Nahum believes called down a curse on the family and the estate. The film never quite establishes what the truth is, which may be cheating, but a little ambiguity is not necessarily a bad thing.

The structure of Lovecraft’s story is more or less completely abandoned in favor of a more traditional gothic narrative, where weird things are happening and nobody is willing to tell the protagonist exactly what. For monsters we get people who have been exposed to the mysterious whatsit and contracted an illness that ultimately renders them deformed, deranged monstrosities (as well as a brief peek inside a surreal menagerie of other mutations, though the effects there aren’t very good and it’s probably best forgotten.)

The whole thing is sometimes a bit aimless plotwise, with the mystery unfolding an an infrequent pace and the central danger often shifting from one monstrous problem to another. For the most part the picture relies on its style to carry it, but this is to its benefit; though the film is cheap, it’s also colorful and imaginative, drawing on contemporary fads for surrealism and neo-occultism to add a consistently weird atmosphere. It’s not often very scary, but it is unsettling. Karloff is very good playing a character who is not really the hero or the villain of the piece, and Nick Adams holds his own for the most part. (I was legitimately surprised to find that Farmer is in fact English, because her accent seems kind of faint.)

DIE, MONSTER, DIE is a nice oddball picture, albeit one with a lot of shortcomings. It’s very clearly rushed, with not a lot of time spent developing the story, but it creates a convincingly spooky environment. It delivers just enough in the creature department to qualify for Monsterthon, and while it’s not essential Halloween viewing, it’s not the worst choice either. I don’t want to pick on modern horror too much, since I’m really not that up on all the latest trends, but a film like this does make me miss the days when a horror film could be something weird and colorful, instead of having to be bleak and hardcore. That this movie works proves that a little imagination goes a long way.

Based on the story “The Colour Out of Space” by H. P. Lovecraft
Screenplay by Jerry Stohl
Directed by Daniel Haller

Grade: B

Friday, October 22, 2010

Frasierquest 3.1: She's the Boss

Frasier and his new boss at an impasse
Frasier: While Kitty laces up her leather bustier, this is Dr. Frasier Crane, KACL. All talk! All night! All naked!

It’s a new season! The logo is green, the image quality has improved a bit, and Daphne got a hair cut, but there are bigger changes in store. “She’s The Boss” kicks off something new for the series, an ongoing subplot involving a recurring guest star. Oscar-winning actress Mercedes Ruehl makes her debut as Kate Costas, KACL’s new station manager; she’s sharp, assertive, and intelligent, and inevitably she and Frasier begin butting heads. It’s about time he had a worthy adversary.

Kate has the station abuzz the day she arrives, meeting with the talent one at a time and canning Father Mike. With Frasier, she’s more charitable, as he’s one of the station’s big hitters, but she has a few suggestions, wanting him to do theme shows and give priority to the juicier calls. Despite Kate’s credentials (6 Golden Mic awards) and take-no-prisoners attitude, or perhaps because of them, Frasier stands up to her and refuses to make any changes to his show. She responds by bumping him to the graveyard slot, where his calls come primarily from bakers and convenience store workers watching themselves on security cameras and not liking what they see. It’s Hell on Frasier’s sleep habits and Roz’s love life, but Frasier won’t back down, even though it’s less about the changes Kate wants to make than the fact that she wants to make changes. Eventually he and Roz hit on a plan to force her hand, playing into what he imagines she wants by making the show as smutty and sleazy as possible.

Again we start with an episode that’s largely about Frasier (as surprising as that is.) There’s really no B story, though Niles tries to get a gun to try and calm Maris’ fear of burglars, and Eddie has a cone on his neck after a fight with another dog leaves him slightly wounded (but still annyoing.) The writers probably felt it necessary to focus on the Kate story, since she’s going to be a major force for several episodes to come. Roz does get more screentime than she usually does, which is always welcome, and it’s a sign of their developing friendship that she rushes to become Frasier’s partner in crime despite partly blaming him for forcing her to work the late shift anyway. Still, the others do get enough to do to remind us that we’re back on familiar territory; it would be weird to have one or more of the regulars absent or completely sidelined for the season premiere.

But the point is Kate. There hasn’t been a character quite like her just yet; she’s not a big one-off guest star, but she isn’t one of the utility players like Bulldog or Gil. She’s more a small arc unto herself, someone who will pose a challenge for Frasier on many levels and serve to put the temporary focus on his workplace as opposed to his home life. (Though it gets a little complicated near the end.) Frankly, it’s the kind of part you more often see in a drama series, where a guest star is brought in for several episodes to advance a specific storyline. (For some reason BUFFY’s big and little bads come to mind.) I’m not entirely sure just how carefully planned Ruehl’s arc was, but given that she’s an established actress they probably had to be pretty sure which and how many episodes she would be in.

It was a good choice in any respect; Ruehl has more than enough presence to establish herself as a formidable character from her first scene, and she makes some interesting choices in terms of line readings and gestures that give the character some flavor. (The way she intones “You did this to vex me” turns a somewhat pretentious statement into a genuine laugh line.) I’ve gotten the impression that some didn’t take to her in this role, and I can see why; she’s a strong taste, and suddenly throwing a powerful and antagonistic character against our hero can sometimes result in the audience hating that character too much. (I’m sure someone on TVTropes has already written up the Evil Poochie syndrome.) Still, I like her.

At first I was inclined to take Frasier’s side regarding the debate. Theme shows seem like a bad idea for a psychiatric call-in program; if someone needs help with their agoraphobia, it’s not very nice to put them aside because you’re talking about marital strife today. But the show’s not a substitute for actual therapy, and they refer callers to qualified therapists already, so I’m not sure it’s that big a deal. Frasier, of course, makes it a big deal. It’s all down to personality conflict; Kate is smart enough, successful enough, and self-confident enough to make Frasier wary of the suggestions she makes. And once he’s planted himself in opposition, it’s very hard for him to back down.

The first battle between Frasier and Kate ends in a compromise, a sign of further struggles to come. And so the new season strikes out in a new direction, promising more stories about KACL and a change in the status quo. The show won’t mutate into something radically different- this is a traditional sitcom, after all- but it will mix things up to stay fresh. Other changes are in store, and this leg of the journey should get pretty interesting.

Guest Callers: Matthew Broderick as Mark, Tom Hulce as Keith, Carrie Fisher as Phyllis, Teri Garr as Nancy

Written by Chuck Ranberg and Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired September 19, 1995

Frasier: Oh God, Roz, I don't think I've helped a single person tonight.

Roz: Helped? You'll be lucky if you don't get sued! You told a longshoreman to come out of the closet, and a gay guy to spend more time on the docks!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Monsterthon: Random Movie Report #79: Gamera the Giant Monster

Gamera DVD cover and Amazon link
The first picture was a dead giveaway, wasn’t it? Gamera has appeared at the club before, but just this past year, Shout! Factory began releasing the original Gamera films on R1 DVD. After years of languishing in poor transfers on budget titles destined to clog the shelves at Half Price Books, the king of monster turtles is finally getting the treatment he deserves. Though obviously conceived as a cash-in on Toho’s kaiju epics, specifically the Godzilla series, the Gamera films quickly found their own vibe and charm. The first film isn’t quite as charmingly absurd as later entries would be, but it’s still pretty entertaining and is a good introduction to this uniquely friendly beast.

The film opens in the Arctic, with a Russian bomber attempting to slip past America’s DEW system. It’s intercepted and shot down, unfortunately triggering its nuclear payload, which melts an ancient glacier and unleashes Gamera, a giant prehistoric turtle worshipped as a god by the local Inuits. The giant monster causes some local destruction before apparently disappearing from sight; shortly after, people in Japan start catching sight of a strange UFO, and local kid Toshio (Yoshiro Uchida) is rescued from a crumbling lighthouse by the monster. Sure, Gamera caused it to start crumbling in the first place, but Toshio is convinced the monster is the reincarnation of a beloved pet turtle he was forced to set free. In due time Gamera- who can not only breathe fire, but fly by tucking all his limbs into his shell and spinning on flame jets like an elaborate firework- sets about destroying the Japanese mainland. Scientists and generals are helpless to find a way to destroy the creature, and Toshio tries to persuade them that Gamera isn’t bad, just misunderstood. Eventually, a supremely goofy plan is hatched.

One of the major reasons Gamera stood out from a number of attempted Godzilla rivals is that Daiei studios directly went after the child audience. While Toho’s star was slowly transforming into a more sympathetic and kid-friendly character (1965, the year this was released, saw Godzilla doing his first fight for good in GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER), Gamera’s titled that way from the start. Sure, in this movie he’s mostly wrecking buildings and setting cities on fire, but the film takes care not to make his rampage too scary or too realistic. I think it also helps that there’s something almost human (or at least cartoonish) about Gamera’s look; he’s got large expressive eyes and a rounded shape that makes him look kind of jolly. In no time whatsoever (well, one or two movies) he would become the friend of children and battle really evil monsters, but solo he comes off as less aggressive than simply out of his element.

Daiei never had a lot of money to spend on these movies, but while the effects are a bit on the cardboard side, they’re well-shot and large-scale enough to get the mood across. Gamera, at least, is convincing and well-designed. I, like many other people, still don’t know just why the filmmakers decided to make him jet-powered, but it’s honestly an inspired touch of whimsy, similar to something Nintendo auteur Shigeru Miyamoto might have come up with 20 years later. (I am not entirely sure what tense that was.)

The human action is sadly a little boring, a common flaw with minor monster pics from this era. It’s not bad, but the fact that I can’t really recall any of the characters besides the kid and older scientist (Eiji Funakoshi) does not speak well. A slight disappointment on the DVD front is that this relese doesn’t include the more widely-seen American cut released as GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE; the rights to those and other English dubs of the original Gamera series are still held by other parties, and have only been available on the aforementioned budget discs.

The first GAMERA epic isn’t really spectacular, but it is one of the few really solid non-Toho kaiju epics from this period. A lot of it is down to Gamera himself, a unique and charming creation one can’t help but like. The film’s story and production values are just strong enough to provide a decent platform for the super turtle’s talents, and launch him off to a surprisingly lengthy and durable career.

Written by Nisan Takahashi
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa

Grade: B

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Monsters have invaded Club Parnassus!

I wanted to start this earlier, but getting the SOCIAL NETWORK review done took too long. But I’ve got most of October left, and I can’t think of any better way to get us into the Halloween spirit than to let loose the monsters.

You can do horror without monsters, but they’re something special in our culture, and vital for Halloween. So I’m going to cover monster stuff- lots of reviews of monster movies, comics, books, and maybe a monster-centric Doctor Who or two. I’ll be looking at the great and the unsung, Japanese and old world.

Now, this won’t be total, I don’t think. I want to get maybe a foothold on Season 3 of Frasierquest, and obviously that doesn’t fit, and of course if there’s any new movie that I feel compelled to review while it’s out, that’ll be up there as well. But it’s gonna be a monsterfest regardless. So get ready to lift a glass to the beastly and the strange, as the Club clears out some extra tables and secures the noise permits for what can only be described as our own personal Monsterthon.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

In Theaters: The Social Network

Social Network poster
Quite a few people may wonder what, if anything, a movie about Facebook has to offer them. Whether you use it or not, it’s more of a tool than anything else, and the birth of a web site does not promise excitement, adventure, or intrigue. This hasn’t stopped millions of people from actually seeing the film, mind you, but it does need to be said that THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a fascinating story, one that focuses on people rather than lines of code. There’s some controversy over the extent to which the picture represents the actual personalities of Aaron Zuckerberg and others, but whether it’s factual or not isn’t the point. The point is the thrill of seeing something big created by someone who isn’t even sure what he’s making, and the anger and sadness that inevitably erupt when that thing gets out of control.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as an icy, antisocial man who has trouble maintaining relationships because of his tendency never to filter his thoughts. At Harvard, he has a bad breakup with Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) and, in a bit of bitterness, creates Facemash, a website wherein pictures of Harvard women are put head to head and people vote on who’s hotter. Apart from being a crass sexist prank, Facemash is also a wonder of programming, with pictures harvested from the “face book” pages of various houses on campus and matched according to an algorithm. This draws the attention of the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer, with Bruce Pence providing a body double onto which Hammer’s face was digitally imposed), who tap him to create a dating site for Harvard men to meet women, with each student having their own page listing hobbies, majors, etc.

Zuckerberg decides to go bigger, and under their noses starts planning something called The Facebook, a social networking site for all Harvard students which depends on exclusivity and the users supplying their own content. His friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) provides the startup cash, he has another friend, Dustin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello) helping with programming, and the three end up giving birth to a minor phenomenon, which starts to grow as Zuckerberg opens it up to more colleges across America and the world. He even attracts the attention of Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) who, ambitious, broke, and a little paranoid after being thrown off two successful sites, decides to help the project grow as big as it can (even suggesting the dropping of “The”, hence just Facebook.) Parker creates a bit of a rift between Zuckerberg and Saverin (who wants to get around to monetizing the site through advertising at some point), and the Winklevoss twins aren’t happy either, trying to find some recourse for what they view as the theft of their idea.

This sounds a lot like the traditional “price of fame” story, which it sort of is. The tweak to the formula here is that rather than being corrupted by fame, Zuckerberg has all his problems from the start. Facemash is an act of vindictiveness, as are some very nasty blog posts he makes about his ex. The problem is never that being a success changes him, but rather that it doesn’t. He remains unable to connect with people on certain levels (some people attribtue this to Asperger’s, but as a person with that condition I’m growing to resent the rep we’re getting.) His fierce intelligence means he remains a compelling character, and he’s never really a villain or monster. Eisnberg’s low-key performance is a remarkable feat of balance in this regard, and the script makes pains to maintain ambiguity on many of the conflicts.

Far, far too much has been written about whether Facebook is a transcendent phenomenon, or an evil information mine, or a waste of time for idiots, and thankfully the film itself deals with this in an unsensational manner. Parts of the story invoke the questions of privacy raised by social networking sites, from Mark’s unwise blog posts to the casual nature of the “friending” phenomenon, but screenwriter Aaron Sorkin resists the temptation to make judgements or force a reading onto the viewer. (And it’s not like the man hasn’t picked up a sledgehammer before.) In its evolution Facebook simply becomes something alive, not entirely under the control of anyone, for good or ill. Zuckerberg manages to create a sustaining online system, which is kind of remarkable for better or for worse.

In a story like this the images, scenes, and settings have a way of sprawling all over the place, from Harvard to Los Angeles to the Thames, from rickety dorms to noisy nightclubs. Director David Fincher and D.P. Jordan Cronenweth’s signature smoky, dim visuals take some getting used to at first, but they imbue the film with a rich texture and atmosphere that draws the disparate places and times into a cohesive experience. The acting is pretty uniformly strong, with Mazzello in particular carrying a lot of weight as the Jebediah Leland to Eisenberg’s Charlie Kane.

Perhaps inevitably the story has to fizzle out just a little, lacking a single major catharsis. The ending isn’t happy, but it’s not quite tragic either, it’s simply where we’ve gotten, with all our problems still with us but the world around us changed just a bit. And yet there’s something truly fascinating at work in this movie. I’m not entirely sure what it is that made me like it so much, but perhaps on some level, it’s just interesting to see smart, flawed people create something big, with all the drama and heartbreak that entails.

Based on the book “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich
Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by David Fincher

Grade: A