Sunday, February 21, 2010
Seems it was just me that really liked The Wolfman.
Okay, I grant you, it's not the best film ever made.
But I can think of plenty of films that it is much better than.
Here's four for a start:
Sherlock Holmes (2009), The Mummy (1999), The Mummy Returns (2001), Van Helsing (2004) and Dracula (1992). (You'll notice I didn't call that last one Bram Stoker's Dracula. Why? For the same reason that you don't refer to The Wicker Man as Anthony Shaffer's The Wicker Man.)
Oh, and a fifth: Cursed (2005).
I quite enjoyed Cursed, more than most folks did at any rate, but the Williamson-Craven brand of postmodernism looks deader than ever in the light of this piece of unabashed premodernism (in the conscious rather than historical sense, as in Pre-Raphaelite).
The film has been overtly set up as a tribute to the great tradition of Universal horror, a tradition of which custodianship, until now, had been in the less than steady hands of an odd chap called Stephen Sommers. Now, Sommers seems like a nice enough fellow, and he is sincere in his love of the Universal horror legacy. But get him behind a camera and you realise he is the last man that should be left in charge of anybody's legacy, even PRC's. No - especially PRC's.
His two Mummy films were striking only for their complete absence of atmosphere, scares or the faintest echoes of the original movies to which he professed himself so indebted, and of which he claimed to be so enamoured. Then came Van Helsing, an attempt to make an even sillier version of House of Dracula, that played like the cinematic equivalent of hearing terrible news about a loved one for two hours.
Why he didn't get the Wolfman gig I don't know, but I mean no offence in saying that that was its biggest break. Perhaps he turned it down for some reason? That seems more likely to me than the idea he wasn't even considered. After all, as he proudly notes in his introduction to the coffee table book Universal Studios Monsters: "Van Helsing and the Mummy trilogy have collectively earned more than a billion and a half dollars."
Yes, you heard him right. Apparently there was a third Mummy film.
I do know that the film had a somewhat troubled and chequered directorial pre-production, and that for a long time there was a lot of debate about the angle at which it should come at the material. The rumour persists in Hollywood, against all evidence as well as mere reason, that the best thing to do with a meat and potatoes project like this is to hand it to some quirky, hotshot director so as to imbue it with his own left of centre personal vision. Why this belief won't die, even after Ang Lee's Hulk is one better left for future historians to chew on.
In the end, almost in desperation, it was placed in the safe hands of the bloke who directed Jurassic Park 3, which is what they should have done all along of course (assuming that Jeannot Szwarc wasn't free).
As expected, Joe Johnston (for such is his name) plays its refreshingly straight the whole way: the closest the film comes to revisionism being the weird concision of the titular character's name from Wolf Man to Wolfman, presumably pronounced like doberman, and making him sound less like a ferocious beast of folklore and more like the junior member of a firm of Jewish accountants.
That the film is so unpretentious a revival is made doubly remarkable by the fact that the screenplay is by Andrew Kevin Walker, more commonly to be found wallowing in the lurid shallows of 8mm and Seven (pronounced Sesevenen). But while these films were pompous and sensationalist juvenilia, the work of children pretending to be adults, this concoction is the work of adults trying to recapture their childhood, a much nobler and more fruitful endeavour, as well as one of infinitely greater benefit to the public at large. (Perhaps the bulk of the work was done by co-writer David Self, who wrote the hated but harmless enough remake of The Haunting.)
Unlike the recent Sherlock Holmes, the name of the game is not iconoclasm but reverence: pre-release publicity bent over backwards to locate the film directly in a revived tradition of Universal horror, rather than hail it as a riff or reinvention, the latter surely the more tactically safe option.
In fact, by switching the period from the 1940s to 1891 it could be argued that the film plays fairer by the authentic ethos than even the original filmmakers were free to do. The design is extraordinarily effective, stylised to the hilt but always staying the right side of Coppola's Dracula-esque absurdity. Instead of Gary Oldman trying to be as ridiculously unlike Lugosi (or any other previous Dracula) as possible, we have Benicio del Toro clearly taking Lon Chaney Jr as his model: perhaps the first actor in history to have ever done such a thing. And in going so far beyond the call of duty as to retain the character name Gwen Conliffe, the film earned a five minutes start ahead of my critical rapier from the word go.
.The Wolf Man is not the only inspiration: the werewolf back story plays more like Werewolf of London's, and American Werewolf In London provides the inspiration for the transformation effects and an excellent Victorian version of that film's Piccadilly pile-up. (And dart-player David Schofield - "I have not missed that board before!" - turns up as the village policeman.)
Jack the Ripper is worked into the mix, with Inspector Abberline himself being sent to the fictional Blackmoor (shot beautifully in locations that look incredibly like, but apparently are not, Dartmoor) to investigate what appears to be an all-too familiar spate of mutilation murders. And there's even a tip of the hat to Hammer, with a nice scene shot by the lake at Black Park. Geraldine Chaplin plays Maria Ouspenskaya; Emily Blunt is very nice; Anthony Hopkins is Anthony Hopkins.
The whole thing looks gorgeous and maintains a superb atmosphere, especially in the quieter and less action-filled sequences. Though the latter are by no means ineffective they are exhaustingly frenetic in the modern manner, and a little overcooked by some incongruous gore and - in the cinema at least - childishly polarised sound mixing. But that really is about all I can find wrong with it.
I think Curt Siodmak might just have enjoyed it (though he'd probably pretend he didn't) and that makes it good enough with me.
The question is whether this is going to kick start anything. Has it done well at the box-office? I don't know, but there are lots of snippy comments on the Imdb, presumably by frustrated fans of Sherlock Holmes and Ang Lee's Hulk, on the lookout for more cinematic magic of that order. It settles this much for sure: I will bother to go and see the remake of Creature From the Black Lagoon. (Though not, God willing, in the same post-apocalyptic ‘leisure complex’ where I've just seen this one.)
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Thanks to everyone who voted in the Favourite Universal Girls poll, which I thought might make for an interesting sequel to the Hammer Glamour results.
As before, there were clear winners streaking ahead from the start (with the eventual victor only taking the lead in the last few days after a fairly neck and neck contest), a few foregone conclusions and also a few surprises.
So without any more ado, here are the results.
First, I must mention that one vote was cast in the 'other' category, but without, alas, any accompanying comment letting me know just who this mysterious other was.
I mention this because common sense predicts that it was a vote on behalf of the great Zita Johann, to whose memory I hereby apologise for idiotically forgetting to include her in the poll.
Onwards then, to the two actresses who, with the shade of Zita, share joint 8th place.
Jacqueline Wells (appears in The Black Cat )
. Working under the name Julie Bishop, she enjoyed a long and solid career in Hollywood films and television through the forties and fifties, but as Jacqueline Wells she is Joan Allison, the stranded beauty stuck between a duelling Karloff and Lugosi in Edgar Ulmer's decadent brew of satanism and necrophilia. She also worked with the Halperin Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, WC Fields and Tarzan. No wonder she keeps fainting.
Mae Clarke (appears in Frankenstein )
. Universal horror buffs cherish her as the original Elizabeth, her absurdly long wedding gown trailing behind her as Karloff abducts her from the marriage bed in homage to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
But there was much more to Mae: she was a superb actress, perhaps the finest all-rounder among all those featured in this poll. Her disappointing later career unaccountably failed to build on the promise she showed in '31, when she gave no fewer than four very different and equally iconic performances in keynote movies: in Frankenstein, Waterloo Bridge, The Front Page (as the original and best Mollie Malloy) and The Public Enemy (absurdly uncredited as Kitty, full-faced recipient of screen history's most famous grapefruit).
“If I’d made a guess as to which of us would make it big,” Barbara Stanwyck once recalled, “I’d have guessed Mae, because she was the better dancer and the most vivacious.”
In joint seventh place, each taking home a 7% share of the total vote, two more swooning abductees.
Sidney Fox (appears in Murders in the Rue Morgue )
.Sidney was the beautiful, strangely remote thirties starlet who took top-billing from Lugosi in Robert Florey's decadent riff on the Poe original, undoubtedly the weirdest and most pre-Codey of the first Universal horrors, as well as - a fact often forgotten - the only one not to be set in the present day. The year before she'd taken the title role in The Bad Sister, this time billed above Bette Davis, but this proved yet another career that didn't ignite as planned. Sidney's troubled journey ended in suicide in 1942.
Think of an early thirties starlet abducted by a giant ape and it is inevitably Fay Wray that comes to the forefront of your mind (unless, like me, she's always at the forefront of your mind). But remember Sidney, too, snatched from her bed by Erik and carried over the Expressionist rooftops to the promise of a fate worse than anything Fay was in danger of.
Peggy Moran (appears in The Mummy's Hand  and Horror Island )
.It's the forties now, and horror starlets are fresh-faced and wholesome; none of this erotic, existential languor anymore...
Peggy fitted the bill most adequately as the screaming heroine of The Mummy's Hand, her contours barely concealed beneath one of those negligees that all female desert explorers like to wear in their tents after lights-out, lost in the arms of Tom Tyler, his face barely concealed beneath Hollywood's oddest mummy make up: a layer of clay so thin that even his hair is plainly visible. Don't they make a cute couple?
Sharing sixth place and 11% of votes cast, another mummy's girl and Dracula's dream date.
Ramsay Ames (appears in Calling Dr Death  and The Mummy's Ghost )
. For me, this campus-set second go-around for Lon Chaney Jr's Kharis is the most purely entertaining of the series, an opinion shared by absolutely nobody else in the known universe. The Mummy films are generally considered the runt in the Universal litter, but I can watch that old guy stumbling about in his bandages forever. I like it when he picks up the heroine and carries her about, and I like it when he goes to kill people and they cower and put their arms up rather than leave the room.
There's something to enjoy in all the mummy movies, and Ames is chief among them in this one. She plays an Egyptian college gal and reincarnation of Princess Ananka herself (just imagine how keen Kharis is to get his hands on her again). In reality she was also a bandleader, who gigged with an outfit called Ramsay Ames and Her Tropicanans.
Helen Chandler (appears in Dracula )
. Giving Mae Clarke a surprise pasting in the polls, Helen is, of course, Mina in the film that invented not only the Universal horror film but the horror film itself. Here, yet again, was a career that went down and took its owner with it, but it seems she never quite lost her eccentricity and cynical humour. One reason why she never quite got the breaks she deserved could have been that she rarely opened any letters, explaining, “If you don’t open and read something, you can prove you didn’t know a thing about it.”
Very neat, this: listed separately, yet paired in the voting as surely as they are in the Universal horror afterlife, with 14% of the vote each:
Gloria Holden and Nan Grey (appear in Dracula's Daughter )
.Exotic specimen Gloria is, as if you needed me to tell you, the eponymous lead in Dracula's Daughter, and as such is a key Universal horror icon - though one, interestingly enough, several rungs of icon-hood lower than Elsa's Bride of Frankenstein, despite the fact that Gloria's in the whole of her movie. This may simply reflect the relative critical and popular status of the two movies, but it's interesting nonetheless, since vampire girls generally sound louder gongs with horror fans than any other kind of distaff beastie, and Gloria's is an all-time queen of the species. . In reality she looked like this:
.Basically no real difference at all.
Nan Grey (who also appeared in Tower of London  and The Invisible Man Returns ) was Gloria's mirror-image: a perky blonde cutie-pie, one of the Three Smart Girls, along with Deanna Durbin and the other one. This is about as scary as she could get:
.Which is what made their fatal encounter so darkly compelling, and one of the best-remembered and most-discussed sequences in all of Universal horror.
. Now this is where the competition starts to get impossible for me. I have no quarrel with any of the top three's right to their positions, but at the same time, how can I still call myself a man if I stand impotently by and allow the relegation to joint-fourth position (on 18% each) of either of the following?
Valerie Hobson (appeared in Werewolf of London and Bride of Frankenstein [both 1935])
The future Mrs John Profumo was just eighteen when she made her two forays into Universal horror, of which the best remembered is Bride of Frankenstein, in which she played Elizabeth (and therefore the title character). She gives an extremely heightened performance, and one which often gets the yahoos yocking in the rep houses, but that it is a performance (presumably dictated by James Whale as further contribution to the prevailing mischievousness of the production) is shown not just by her many later fine performances in British movies, but also by her much more sober contribution to Werewolf the same year. (This is one of my favourite Universals and surely one of the most underrated. Go and give it another watch now; it's better than The Wolf Man, I swear to you.)
She's just fine here. But obviously that's not what got her 18% of the overall vote. She's also uncommonly beautiful. If Profumo had been married to Christine Keeler, and come across Valerie at a party... well, maybe then, perhaps, I might have understood.
Irene Ware (appears in The Raven )
In one sense, there were many, many great female stars in Hollywood in the thirties. (This sense is known as 'the accurate and literal sense'.) But in another sense, there were only two: Fay Wray (who never made a Universal horror film, despite being a freelance who worked at Universal three times in '34 and again in '38; I mention this merely to confound those of you complacent enough to think that the universe has our interests at heart), and Irene Ware. (This sense is known as 'the sense that only makes sense to me sense'.)
Irene is some phantom flitting through thirties movies; she's never there for long, never where everyone's attention is focused; she flies by, lands, enchants, and is gone. The Raven probably remains her best-known visit to our world of mere mortals; as the girl Lugosi falls for so hard that when she turns him down he invites her, her fiancé and her father to a weekend party and sets about torturing them to death. That's the kind of effect Irene has on you.
Time, then, for the big prize-winners. In third place, with a very healthy 29% of total votes cast:
Evelyn Ankers (appears in The Wolf Man , The Ghost of Frankenstein , Captive Wild Woman , Son of Dracula , The Mad Ghoul , Weird Woman , The Invisible Man's Revenge , The Frozen Ghost )
However much I adore Valerie and Irene... As her list of credits is alone sufficient to show, it really would have been sacrilege had Evelyn Ankers been left out of the top three. This is the scream queen of Universal, their in-house Fay Wray, who was pitted against just about every monster on the studio roster, along with a few they invented specially for her.
Though she was fine as villainess and mistress of disguise Naomi Drake, alongside Creeper Hatton, in Pearl of Death, one of a pair of appearances in Universal's Sherlock Holmes series, in the studio's horror films she was almost always the screaming heroine. Only once did she get a chance to show her claws and play evil, in Weird Woman, driven mad by frustrated love for Lon Chaney Jr. (You might think having the hots for Lon is as much symptom as cause of psychological instability; if so Evelyn would have doubtless agreed. Cast constantly opposite each other, the two did not hit it off overmuch, as Evelyn hilariously reveals in her brilliant essay The 'B' and I, featured in Doug McClelland's book The Golden Age of B Movies.)
Evelyn always did great work in Universal horror, never acted like she was passing through en route to something better; she was great-looking, and she always gave the movies her full-lunged best shot. Here's to her!
And in second place, with 40% of the vote all to herself...
Gloria Stuart (appears in The Old Dark House , Secret of the Blue Room  and The Invisible Man )
Still with us, and a hundred years old this July, Gloria could well be the classiest of all Universal horror heroines. Only in The Invisible Man does she play the heroine straight down the line and stand to one side of the mayhem, looking worried. In Old Dark House and Blue Room she's at the very centre of the intrigue; resourceful, sardonic, intelligent, by turns coquettish and cynical, and always stunningly yet somehow casually beautiful. More here.
And so, finally, as no possible surprise to anyone - cleaning up with a full 51% of all votes cast: the indisputably greatest female icon in the history of Universal horror.
Elsa Lanchester (appears in Bride of Frankenstein )
One of the greatest Hollywood one-offs, an imperishable eccentric, intellectual, and instinctively true character actress, Lanchester was also possessed of a supremely unconventional beauty.
Red-haired, gangly, with transfixing eyes and an air of louche unpredictability, she could never have been cast in conventional Hollywood leads. And, sadly, conventional was what Hollywood did best, so the opportunitites to see her take centre stage in her prime are frustratingly few.
But just you try taking your eyes away when she's on.
Her best performances were usually those given alongside her husband, that other great English oddball abroad, and my vote for greatest screen actor of all time, Mr Charles Laughton. Bride remains her best spotlight appearance away from Charles's shadow: superb, of course, as the Bride herself, finally revealed in the movie's climactic scene, but excellent too as a flirty (and Hays-goadingly busty) Mary Shelley in the film's silly literary prologue.
This is clearly the stuff of which screen immortality is made.