Saturday, October 27, 2018

Stubs - The Mummy (1959)

The Mummy (1959) Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Furneaux. Directed by Terence Fisher. Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster. Produced by Michael Carreras. Runtime: 88 minutes. UK Color Horror.

Hammer Film Productions is probably best remembered for a series of horror films that it produced between 1959 and 1974, including such films as The Quatermass Experiment (1955), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959). These films would be popular in the United Kingdom as well as the US and would inspire such filmmakers as Roger Corman and American International Pictures, that would also produce their own horror films based on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe.

The studio, however, had gotten its start as the home studio for comedian William Hinds, who founded the company using his stage name Will Hammer as the inspiration. Its first film was indeed a comedy, The Public Life of Henry the Ninth (1935). The studio fell on hard times and went bankrupt in 1937. However, the distribution company Hinds had formed with Enrique Carreras, a former cinema owner and émigré from Spain, survived.

Hammer Film Productions made a comeback in 1947 with the British crime film Death in High Heels. In 1951, Hammer and Exclusive signed a four-year production and distribution deal with American film producer Robert Lippert. The two companies would distribute each other’s films as a result.

In 1955, Hammer began filming The Quatermass Experiment, the studio’s first venture into the horror genre. The film was so popular that a sequel was begun. But The Quatermass 2 ended up becoming the film The Curse of Frankenstein, based on a screenplay by American screenwriters  Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky. While it adhered closely to Universal’s Son of Frankenstein (1939), additions and edits managed to get past copyright issues. The film brought together director Terence Fisher with actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, a trio who would drive much of Hammer’s success in the horror genre.

Hammer decided to take on another monster icon, Dracula, but copyright issues were harder to avoid with Universal. A legal agreement between Hammer and Universal was not completed until March 31, 1958 – after the film had been shot. The agreement, however, allowed Hammer to remake other Universal horror films, which lead to The Mummy (1959).

Principal photography on the film began on February 23, 1959, and ended on April 16, 1959. The film was originally released on September 25, 1959, in the UK receiving general release on October 23, 1959. The film, made on a budget of £125,000, was released in the US in December of that year.  While the title suggests the 1932 film, the story is more an amalgamation of plot and characters from Universal’s The Mummy's Hand (1940) and The Mummy's Tomb (1942), with the climax borrowed directly from The Mummy's Ghost (1944), all sequels to the original film.

The film opens in Egypt in 1895 where archaeologists John Banning (Peter Cushing), his father Stephen (Felix Aylmer) and his uncle Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) are searching for the tomb of Princess Ananka, the high priestess of the god Karnak.

Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) and Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley) are archaeologists.

Sometime prior, John has a broken leg and is laid up. He refuses to get it set properly and will forever after walk with a limp. Because of his injury, he cannot accompany his father and uncle when they open the tomb.

John Banning (Peter Cushing) is also an archaeologist, but a broken leg keeps him from the dig.

But before they enter, an Egyptian named Mehemet Bey (George Pastell) warns them not to go in, lest they face the fatal curse against desecrators. Of course, Stephen and Joseph ignore him and discover within the sarcophagus of Ananka. Joseph leaves to tell John the good news, leaving Stephen alone inside the vault. While rummaging around, Stephen finds the Scroll of Life and naturally reads aloud from it as he translates it. Outside, members of the archaeological team hear his screams and Joseph rushes back into the tomb only to find Stephen in a catatonic state.

Before the entourage returns to England, the entrance to the tomb is dynamited. Bey stays behind to discover the body of Kharis (Christopher Lee), the mummy that Stephen had brought back to life by his readings.

Three years later, back in England, Stephen is being cared for at the Engerfield Nursing Home for the Mentally Disordered. The doctors figure he’d had a stroke and would never recover. However, he does and sends for his son. When John goes to visit him, Stephen tells him that when he read from the Scroll of Life, he unintentionally brought back to life Kharis, the mummified high priest of Karnak.

Meanwhile, Bey, a devoted worshiper of Karnak, comes to Engerfield under the alias of Mehemet Akir with the intention to wreak vengeance on the Bannings for their desecration of Ananka’s tomb. He hires a pair of drunken carters, Pat (Harold Goodwin) and Mike (Denis Shaw), to bring a crate of artifacts to his rented house. Inside the crate, however, is the slumbering Kharis.

But the two men's driving causes the crate to fall off the wagon and sink into a nearby bog. Bey, surprisingly, isn’t upset. Later, Bey returns and, using the Scroll of Life, exhorts Kharis to rise from the mud. He then sends him to murder Stephen Banning. Like a bloodhound, Kharis knows where to find Stephen.

Mehemet Bey (George Pastell) uses the Scroll of Life
to bring Kharis (Christopher Lee) back from the grave.

Meanwhile, Stephen is put into a padded room and told that no one can hear him. If he needs anything, he has to ring the bell in the room. No sooner is he left alone than Kharis breaks into his room, through an outside window. Rather than ring the bell, Stephen tries the door, which is locked. Too late he decides to try the bell, but before he can ring it, Kharis wrings his neck instead.

Kharis uses the Scroll of Life to try and bring Ananka (Yvonne Furneaux) back from the dead.

The next night, John reads the legend of Ananka to his uncle. The legend tells of the high princess, Ananka (Yvonne Furneaux), who dies while traveling. Rather than taking her back home for burial, Kharis has her body prepped and a chamber built where they are. There is an elaborate and lengthy process at the end of which her tomb is sealed. But Kharis, who is love with the princess, reads from The Scroll of Life in an effort to bring her back from the dead.

As punishment, Kharis' tongue is cut out of his mouth and ...

However, his desecration is discovered and his punishment includes having his tongue cut out and being buried alive near the princess’s sarcophagus.

Kharis is mummified alive and left to stand guard by Ananka's tomb.

Soon after reading him the legend, which Joseph dismisses, he is killed by Kharis. John tries to stop the murder and manages to shoot Kharis at close range, but it is too little too late. Joseph is dead and Kharis escapes.

Police Inspector Mulrooney (Eddie Byrne) is assigned to solve the murders, but he is skeptical about the details John tells him. Mulrooney deals only in "cold, hard facts” and does not believe John's incredible story about a killer mummy, even when John tells him that he is likely to be Kharis' third victim.

As Mulrooney investigates, John notices that his wife Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux) bears an uncanny resemblance to Princess Ananka. Gathering testimonial evidence from other individuals in the community, Mulrooney slowly begins to wonder if the mummy is real.

Bey sends Kharis out to kill John Banning.

Later, Bey sends the mummy to the Bannings' home to kill John. However, when Isobel rushes to her husband's aid, Kharis sees her, releases John, and leaves. When Kharis returns, Bey mistakenly believes John is dead and prepares to return to Egypt.

Police Inspector Mulrooney (Eddie Byrne) finally believes John's story.

Mulrooney tells John that the mysterious man who had hired the drivers to deliver the lost crate lives nearby and is thought by villagers to be an Egyptian. Despite Mulrooney’s advice to the contrary, John goes to pay him a visit. Bey is obviously surprised to learn that John is alive. Their conversation turns to religion and Bey condemns John for archeology’s desecration of Egypt’s holy places.

After John leaves, Bey leads Kharis in a second attempt on John's life. Mulrooney is trying to protect John, but the mummy knocks him out. Meanwhile, Bey takes out another man guarding the house. Kharis enters the house and finds John in his study. John tries to fight back, but Kharis starts to choke him.

Kharis notices how much Isobel (Yvonne Furneaux) resembles Ananka.

When Isobel hears John’s screams, she runs into the house. Kharis at first doesn’t recognize her but at John’s urging she lets down her hair. Seeing her as his beloved Ananka, Kharis lets John go. Bey orders the mummy to kill her, but he refuses. When Bey takes it into his own hands to kill her, Kharis kills him.

Isobel swoons and the mummy picks her up and carries her back to the swamp with John, Mulrooney and other police in pursuit. John yells to Isobel to tell Kharis to put her down. After he reluctantly puts her down, the police open fire, causing Kharis to sink into the swamp, taking the Scroll of Life with him.

Christopher Lee plays Kharis, a role in which he never speaks.

If you’re looking for heart-stopping terror, this Hammer Gothic Horror doesn’t have that quality. Rather it is about the atmosphere and the interactions between the characters. The latter is helped by the acting, which for the most part is pretty good. While Christopher Lee is one of the co-stars, he has the unenviable role of the Mummy, meaning for most of the film he never speaks and is covered head to toe by bandages. Even when he is allowed to be in character, Kharis the high priest, he still is shown silently with narration over his acting.

Peter Cushing plays John Banning in The Mummy.

Peter Cushing plays a British aristocrat pretty well. Though I doubt this was a really challenging role for him, he does make me want to see more of his work. Cushing started out on television and acted in a significant number of Hammer films, horror as well as other genres. He is, however, perhaps, best remembered by modern audiences for his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars (1977).

French actress Yvonne Furneaux plays Isobel and Princess Ananka (above) in Hammer's The Mummy.

Yvonne Furneaux has a pretty one-dimensional character to play. There’s not much to Isobel except that she resembles Ananka. It’s hard to tell from this role if she’s a good actress or not. She would go onto a significant role in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) the following year.

My favorite actor in the film is Eddie Byrne as Police Inspector Mulrooney. There is something so British about his portrayal. He gets to be a by-the-books sort of policeman but still comes around to believe the very odd story that John tells. It’s a small role, but he brings a lot of life to it.

One of my biggest complaints is a lack of logic that seems to propel the story forward and to its conclusion. If everyone related to the incident with Ananka dies before reaching civilization, how is there such a well-documented legend? How does Kharis know where to find his victims? I can understand the revenge, but he has never seen Joseph nor John but he apparently knows them on sight.

He also seems to be oblivious to manmade weapons, surviving multiple gunshots and a spear run through him but, in the end, he apparently succumbs to a volley from the police in the swamp. If bullets don’t harm him, how do they kill him?

Why is he taking Isobel back to the swamp in the first place? That makes no sense unless he’s trying to kill her? And where does he get the Scroll of Life that he takes with him to his watery grave? The scroll appears in his hand right at the very end, did he have it in his pocket? Does a mummy have pockets?

The Hammer version of the Mummy isn’t bad but it is an example of the old adage, don't remake good films. The original The Mummy (1932), starring Boris Karloff, may have its own flaws, but by comparison, it is a much better film than this. If you have to watch a Mummy film this Halloween season, stick with the original Universal version. The Hammer one only makes you realize how good the original is.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Stubs - Get Out

Get Out (2017) Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield, Catherine Keener Directed by Jordan Peele Screenplay by Jordan Peele. Produced by Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, Edward H. Hamm Jr., Jordan Peele Run Time: 103 minutes Color USA Horror, Comedy

Horror may not be the genre that you would expect Jordan Peele to make his mark in as a film director. Previously best known for his work as part of the comedy duo of Key & Peele, which had a five-season run on Comedy Central, and once again starring with Keegan-Michael Key in Keanu (2016), Get Out seems to come out of left field. Still, it was a tremendous hit, making $255.5 million on a budget of $4.5 million, and was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Picture and for Peele as Best Director.

The film opens with an unidentified black man walking through a suburban neighborhood. When he notices a car is following him, he tries to be inconspicuous but the driver manages to sneak up behind him and subdue him.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white
girlfriend Rose Armitage on the way to meet her parents.

Despite the intro, the main story revolves around the mixed-race relationship between black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). After having dated for five months, it is finally time for Chris to meet her parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener). Despite the warning of his best friend and TSA
Agent Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howery), Chris willingly goes.

Lil Rel Howery plays Chris' friend Agent Rod Williams of the TSA.

On the drive up, there is an accident with a deer that crosses in front of Rose’s car as she’s driving.  Even though she was driving, the highway patrol officer asks to see Chris’ ID. Rose, however, will have none of that and almost gets into an argument with the officer. It looks like Rose will not let her boyfriend be racially profiled.

Despite their liberal views, Rose's parents Missy (Catherine Keener) and
Dean (Bradley Whitford) have black servants, like Georgina (Betty Gabriel).

While Rose’s parents tell Chris how open-minded her parents are, they still have two black servants, a maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson). Dean explains to Chris that they were hired to take care of his dying parents and when they died they didn’t want to lose them. Dean also shows Chris a photograph of his father, Roman, who lost in the Olympic Trials to Jesse Owens. Over lunch, Dean notices that Chris is acting like a smoker and offers Missy’s hypnotherapy as a way of breaking his habit. Chris begs off.

At dinner, they are joined by Rose’s brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), who seems not only aggressive towards Chris but a little overtly racist. Chris tries not to let Jeremy bother him too much.

Groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) runs at night.

That night, Chris is unable to sleep so he goes outside for a smoke. While he’s out, he looks inside the house and sees Georgina checking herself out in a mirror. And he is almost run over by Walter, who goes running by him. Back inside the house, Chris discovers that Missy is up and waiting for him. She invites him in to sit with her and forces him into a hypnotherapy session. In a trance, he relives the death of his mother, who died on her way home after work, the victim of a hit-and-run. Under her hypnosis, Chris falls into what Missy calls the “sunken place” in which he is powerless to do anything.

Missy used hypnosis to get Chris to quit smoking and to put him under her spell.

When he wakes up the next morning, he discovers that Georgina has unplugged his phone, draining its battery. She tells him that it was an accident.

Their weekend visit corresponds with an annual get-together that Dean claims started with his father and which they carry on out of tradition. The guests are almost exclusively rich white people who arrive in a parade of limousines. They express to Chris an almost odd appreciation of black men and athletes like Tiger Woods.

The guests at the party seem really impressed by Blacks in general and Chris in particular.

While everyone seems to admire Chris’ physique, Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), a blind art dealer, tells him how much he admires his photography. Chris is understandably uneasy and is happy to see another black man there, Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield), who is married to a much older white woman. Logan seems more white than black and misinterprets a fist bump from Chris. When Chris tries to take an inconspicuous photo of Logan, the flash on his phone sends Logan into a rage. He rushes Chris, telling him to “Get out” before he is subdued and given a treatment by Missy. Away from the house, Chris convinces Rose that they should leave. Meanwhile, Dean leads a silent auction for Chris, which Jim appears to win.

The flash of the camera sets Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield) off.

Away from the house, Chris manages to convince Rose that he wants to leave.

Chris sends Rod the photo he took of Logan and Rod recognizes him as Andre Hayworth, a former friend, who has been missing for months. Suspecting there is something evil going on, Rod goes to the police with a wild conspiracy about Blacks being kidnapped and used as sex slaves. The police, though, laugh at his theory.

Back at the house, the party having ended, Chris is packing when he sees a closet door open and decides to look inside. There, in a bright red box, he discovers a cache of photos of Rose with a series of black men, one of whom resembles Walter, and even one black woman, who resembles Georgina. Up until then, he had thought he was Rose’s first black lover.

Chris tries to leave but the family blocks his way. Jeremy gets physical with him but it takes Missy’s hypnosis to subdue him and put him in the “sunken place” again. Unable to move, he is carried away by the family. He wakes up in a converted family room, strapped down in a chair. He is forced to watch a video presentation, starring the Armitage family but narrated by the patriarch, Roman (Richard Herd). He describes in simple yet ominous terms about a process of transplanting the brains of white people into black bodies. The goal is that white person’s consciousness would enjoy the body with the host’s remaining in the “sunken place” and powerless.

Chris gets sent back to the "sunken place" by Missy.

In a second video, Hudson tells Chris that he’s looking forward to gaining not only Chris’s sight, but also his artistic talents.

Meanwhile, Rose is eating dry cereal in her room when Rod calls looking for Chris. While he’s trying to find out what they’ve done to him, Rose makes a pass at him. Rod wisely hangs up.

Rose, on the phone with Rod, makes an overt pass at him.

Chris, who has been scratching at the fabric of the chair, uses some of the exposed stuffing as earplugs, so he is immune to the hypnotic sound cues that Missy has trained him to react to. So, while Dean preps Jim for the surgery, Jeremy goes to collect Chris. However, Chris jumps him and bashes his head in. He then impales Dean on the antlers of a trophy deer. In the commotion, Dean knocks over some lamps which sets the house on fire.

Upstairs, Chris prevents Missy from putting him under and then stabs her to death. Jeremy, who refuses to die, attacks, but Chris manages to kill him. Rose comes after him with a rifle, but Chris manages to get away. However, as he is driving away, he runs over Georgina. Still thinking she’s a victim in all of this and remembering how his own mother died after a hit-and-run, he goes back to get her. But Georgina is not really injured and is possessed by Marianne, Rose’s grandmother, who attacks him while he’s driving, forcing him to crash.

Georgina lashes out and causes Chris to crash the car.

Trying to escape on foot, Rose, with Walter in tow, catches up to him, with Walter tackling Chris. Chris manages to pull out his phone and snap a photo. The flash for it affects Walter the same way it had Logan. Walter takes Rose’s rifle from her but instead of killing Chris, shoots Rose in the stomach before turning the weapon on himself.

But Rose isn’t quite dead. Chris, in his anger, starts to strangle her. He is stopped when a police car pulls up nearby. Rose thinks she’s saved, too, until the police car turns out to belong to the TSA and driven by Rod. He has used his skills as a TSA agent to track down his friend. They leave Rose to die. After chiding him for not taking his advice, Rod drives Chris off to safety.

It will probably not come as any great surprise that race is a major part of the story, however, the inter-racial dating aspect is old hat by now. Once inter-racial couples are used to sell products on TV, the shock value is nil. The twist is a rather warped admiration for Blacks that somehow turns into Whites using their bodies for their own selfish use as if the White mind in a Black body is a more perfect person. And to think it all began when Roman lost out to Jesse Owens back in 1936.

I generally liked Get Out quite a lot, even though it is not a perfect film. There are a couple of holes that need to be overlooked. One of the most obvious is the big chunk of exposition that sort of falls into Chris’ lap like there just happened to be an open closet door in which is a bright red box that contains snapshots of all the black men and women Rose has brought to be transformed. Is that seriously something you would leave lying around? And there are so many lovers that you start to wonder how old Rose would have to be to have had so many, thinking it would take a few months of dating before meeting her parents.

Brain surgery is one of the most tedious of all surgeries, requiring the most antiseptic of all places. However, Dean seems to be doing most of the work in an open room lit by candles, not what I would consider a sanitary place to have someone’s head opened up.

And even though Rod is a member of the “TS-motherfuckin'-A” it seems almost coincidental that he would have been able to locate Chris when he does. Of course, no one wants to look a savior in the mouth, but his appearance at that moment is a bit of a Deus ex Machina.

Most of the power of the movie comes from the dialogue, which subtly plants clues all along the way. In retrospect, the dialogue takes on a different meaning. The script is as responsible as anything for the success of the film.

Allison Williams, the daughter of news anchor Brian Williams and a former cast member of the HBO series “Girls”, plays the very pleasant looking, though very evil, Rose. While she appears to be not only loving towards Chris, she also looks protective of him as well, in the scene with the Highway Patrolman. One of the great things about the film is that you can look back on scenes like this and see that she wasn’t being protective but rather trying to hide the evidence that Chris was ever there.

Chris and Rose in a happier moment together.

Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris seems all too accepting of things as they happen and a little naïve. We never really seem him react until he’s trapped. And even after he had seen the photos of Rose with other Black men he is still looking to her to help him out until it becomes painfully obvious that she’s not going to. All that makes his outburst at the end all the more powerful. The movie comes close but it doesn’t fall into the trap of having Chris be saved. On his own, he saves himself, making him more heroic.

The other actors, especially Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, are both good in their roles. The fact that they start off so pro-Chris makes their ultimate betrayal all the more powerful. Whitford, who many will remember for his role in The West Wing, has been cast before as evil, playing a man who claims to be Red John in The Mentalist series. But then it was more of a claim to be evil, here we actually see him being evil.

Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are good in their roles.

But the real mastermind is Missy, who apparently has no qualms about using her hypnotic powers for evil. What she does to Chris she has apparently done many times before. This also seems to be a bit of a departure for Keener. Better known for her roles in Being John Malkovich (1999), Capote (2005) and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), this also seems to be her playing against type and doing a good job with the role.

Lil Rel Howery sort of steals the movie.

Kaluuya and Williams may be the stars of the film but Lil Rel Howery sort of steals the show. While the comedian had appeared before on film and TV, his appearance in Get Out made him a much bigger star and no doubt led to his own comedy series, Rel, which debuted this fall. Every time he’s on the screen, he outshines pretty much anyone else. And his comedic relief is just what is needed after a rather harrowing sequence.

While horror may not be for everyone, this is really a very good film, despite the genre. Jordan Peele definitely has a promising career in films waiting for him. You look forward to seeing what he does next.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Stubs - Doctor X

Doctor X (1932) Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Robert Tasker and Earl Baldwin. Based on the play The Terror by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller (New York, 9 Feb 1931). Producer Uncredited.  Runtime 80 minutes. USA Color. Horror.

With the success of Dracula (1931), other studios wanted to get in on the surge of horror films. Warner Brothers did not want to be left out. The studio stayed true to their roots and set their film in a modern urban setting, the sort of place their more famous gangster films might be based.

Looking for content, the studio paid $5000 for the rights to the play The Terror written by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller. I can’t find anything about it making it to the Great White Way but it must have made enough of a splash for it to garner the studio’s notice and see it as a viable vehicle.

The film was shot using a two-strip Technicolor process, making it the first color horror film. The color prints, however, were only shown in the big theaters while a black and white version was sent to the small towns. There are apparently slight differences between the two versions. (The color version was thought lost until 1978 when a copy was discovered in the personal collection of Jack L. Warner.)

Reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) is investigating a series of murders at the beginning of the film.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film opens with reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) investigating a series of murders that had taken place in New York. Lee watches as three men visit the morgue to examine the sixth body in a series of "moon murders” which involve cannibalism and always take place during a full moon. Two of the men are with the police, Police Commissioner Stevens (Robert Warwick) and Detective O'Halloran (Willard Robertson).

The third man, Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill), who has been brought in to do the autopsy, pronounces the murders to be the result of a fixation. Because the murders all occurred in the vicinity of his Academy of Surgical Research and utilize an imported scalpel only used there, the police are interested in interrogating his staff. Dr. Xavier, who is worried about the reputation of his institute, asks the police for permission to conduct his own investigation and they reluctantly give him forty-eight hours.

However, they do insist on looking around.

Father Xavier (Lionel Atwill) and daughter Joan (Fay Wray).

The academy is between sessions, so there are no students, only faculty and the doctor’s daughter Joan (Fay Wray). The professors are all there working on their own research. There is Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), a student of cannibalism. He’s ruled out as a suspect since he is missing one hand, no doubt as a result of his research. Dr. Duke (Harry Beresford) is also initially ruled out because he’s a cripple.

Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), one of Dr. Xavier's colleagues.

Dr. Haines (John Wray), who might have engaged in cannibalism when he was shipwrecked along with Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe) and a third man, but only two of them survived. Now Dr. Haines displays a sexual perversion with voyeurism. Dr. Rowitz, who has a notable scar on the side of his face, is conducting studies of the psychological effects of the moon.

The location shifts to Cliff Manor high on the cliffs.

Only Wells appears to be beyond suspicion because his missing arm makes it impossible for him to strangle anyone. Snooping outside the academy, Lee meets Joan. When he calls on her the next day, she tells him that his news stories have made it impossible for her father to conduct his experiments there. They all leave for Cliff Manor at Blackstone Shoals, Long Island, and Lee follows them.

Dr. Wells slathers himself with a synthetic skin.

During Xavier's first attempt to find the murderer, the lights go out and Rowitz is killed. Joan volunteers to participate in the second experiment. This time, all the men except Wells are chained to their chairs. He secretly attaches synthetic flesh to his arm and face, which enables him to attack Joan, but he is stopped from killing her by Lee, who sets him on fire and pushes him out the window to the cliffs, where he burns to death.

Dr. Wells tries to strangle Joan before Lee stops him.

Part of my interest in the film was the involvement of director Michael Curtiz.  The Hungarian-born director had helmed some of the great films from the studio era, including Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Sea Wolf (1941), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), This Is the Army (1943), White Christmas (1954), and We're No Angels (1955). He seemed to be able to move from drama to comedies to musicals without ever missing a step. So, I was anxious to see what he could do with the horror genre.

I hate to say it but I was disappointed. It may have to do with the material and the subject matter but I could never really get into the film. The staging is claustrophobic, even the scenes that are supposed to take place outside are obviously done on a soundstage. And the pacing is slow, to say the least, with all of us getting bored while watching.

Fay Wray as Joan Xavier.

The acting is rather wooden with none of the actors really distinguishing themselves. Fay Wray, who was a year away from her best-known role as Ann Darrow in King Kong (1933), is perhaps the only one who is memorable in her role. Some of that may be due as much to her looks as her acting. She had been in films since the silent era, including her first lead role in Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March (1925). Even though the film was a financial failure, Wray stayed at Paramount Pictures for more than a dozen films before leaving the studio, after which she signed for various film companies. She starred in Stowaway (1932) at Universal before making Doctor X at Warner Bros. the same year.

Lee Atwill as Dr. Xavier.

The star of the film, Lionel Atwill, gives a very stagey performance as Dr. Jerry Xavier. An English stage actor, this is only Atwill’s second sound film. You can tell why he might have been considered for the lead but he’s not really all that engaging.

Lee Tracy is the hero as well as providing comedic relief.

Lee Tracy is supposed to provide both a hero for the story and as well as comedic relief. The film needs both. A stage actor, Tracy is the one who originated the role of Hildy Johnson in the Broadway production of The Front Page in 1928. When he arrived in Hollywood, he continued to play newspapermen as he does here. He’s all right in the role.

Cannibalism as a subject matter is rather risky as it is a real turn off. Thankfully, no one is eaten, though Dr. Wells seems to be the worse for having studied it. And the synthetic flesh that he plasters over his face is also off-putting. I’m sure the idea wasn’t to gross out the audience but to take the horror genre somewhere new. It’s too bad it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to be taken.

The two-strip Technicolor process gives the film a rather sickly tone which enhances that queasy feeling you might be having. The film has a rather dingy green tone throughout.

When the film was originally released it received good reviews and was enough of a box office hit that Warner Bros. made Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which would reunite Atwill and Wray with Curtiz directing again.

While I have read some very positive reviews that talk about the imaginativeness of the film, I have a dissenting opinion. I’ll give the film credit for being the first color horror film and picking a subject matter that must have been considered genre-expanding at the time, but there’s not much else to recommend the film. I am not a huge fan of the horror genre, you’d have to be one to get much out of this film.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase

After we reviewed Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, we’ve decided to review another direct-to-video Scooby-Doo movie, not only to celebrate its 17th anniversary, but also because we’ve actually owned a copy on DVD since its original release. That particular movie is Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase, a movie which represents many firsts and lasts for the Scooby-Doo franchise. I remember liking this movie as a kid, even watching it a few times, but looking back on it now as an adult, it’s more flawed than I had thought.

In a college computer lab run by Professor Kaufman (Tom Kane), two of his students, Eric Staufer (Bob Bergen) and Bill McLemore (Mikey Kelley), are working on gaming projects when a creature, the Phantom Virus (Gary Sturgis), is beamed into the real world from one of the games and tries to attack. The next day, the Mystery, Inc. gang visits Eric to try out a game he made based on their previous adventures, only to find out that the Phantom Virus is still roaming around the campus. The gang manages to find the Phantom Virus, only to be mysteriously beamed into Eric’s video game along with it. If they want to escape the game and figure out who created the virus, they’ll have to confront the Phantom Virus while beating all ten of the game’s levels.

At its core, Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase seems to take inspiration from Tron (1982), as both movies involve a human, or group in this case, being beamed into a digital world and having to fight their way back into the real world. Both also involve games in some form, though the games in Tron were based more on physical combat, which Flynn escapes before having to fight the Master Control Program, while Cyber Chase involves Mystery, Inc. overcoming various trials put forth by the various video game worlds they have to complete. While this observation has no bearing on the quality of Cyber Chase, it was one I made during the viewing for this review and I wanted to express it here.

The title screen of the fictional game created by Eric Staufer (Bob Bergen),
featuring Mystery, Inc. in their "classic" attire.

Apart from the Tron inspiration, Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase actually has some interesting ideas, mainly Mystery, Inc. having to fight a non-conventional digital monster that has the ability to control electronics. Additionally, the idea of traveling through a video game world apparently modeled after their previous adventures opens up some unique storytelling possibilities.

Unfortunately, Cyber Chase suffers from some rather lackluster execution. Whenever the Phantom Virus shows up during the game, his abilities aren’t fully taken advantage of and he’s more of a pushover until the final level of the game. On that note, his weakness, a super magnet, is also forgotten until it’s needed during the final level and the movie’s internal rules of the magnet’s strength aren’t completely clear. The Phantom Virus also seems to, for some reason, constantly leave clues as to who his creator is. When we do find out, the villain also does nothing to make themselves seem less guilty, which removes a lot of the tension from the finale. As for the game itself, the movie shows the contents of the first three levels, but then skips six of them in a glorified music video, only to more fully explore the tenth level.

By virtue of its prominence in the latter half, the tenth level of the in-universe game is one of the more interesting, apart from the somewhat realistic aesthetic of the city. It’s here that the more interesting ideas from the movie are more fully realized, including the appearance of some of Mystery, Inc.’s past villains and a more complete showcase of the Phantom Virus’ abilities. However, a majority of the encounter against past villains is shown through a music montage involving plenty of slapstick humor. Looking back on it, I feel the movie could have benefited from spreading out the appearances with previous villains across the game’s levels in order to give them proper screen time.

The Phantom Virus (Gary Sturgis) had potential as a villain, but fell short.

The post-credits sequence, which features Mystery, Inc. talking about their favorite parts of the movie, doesn’t really help with sorting out the internal logic of Cyber Chase, since this sequence not only implies that the characters had somehow filmed the movie, but also includes moments that weren’t even in the final product. I ran with it as a kid, but as an adult it felt more confusing.

I’ll also mention at this point that Cyber Chase contains quite a bit of slapstick humor by comparison with Zombie Island, which had more subtle jokes incorporated into the dialogue. In spite of this, there is a little bit of clever Scooby-Doo meta humor that addresses how Mystery, Inc. normally splits up while looking for a monster.

While not free of errors, the animation of Cyber Chase is smooth and holds up pretty well. The darker color palette introduced in Zombie Island has all but disappeared, leaving a noticeably brighter color palette against a world that’s still depicted pretty realistically. Considering the visual differences between Cyber Chase and later Scooby-Doo direct-to-video movies, Cyber Chase could be viewed as a transition between different interpretations of the franchise and different animation styles.

Story aside, the voice acting of Cyber Chase is well-done, with each of the actors lending the appropriate voices and energy to the characters. The soundtrack is also solid, though lighter in comparison with Zombie Island, which lends further credence to the idea that Cyber Chase is a stylistic transition. As is tradition, Cyber Chase features a version of the main Scooby-Doo theme, this time sung by three members of the B-52s, specifically Cindy Wilson, Kate Pierson, and Fred Schneider. This is accompanied by two original songs, “Hello Cyberdream,” written by Richard Lawrence Wolf and performed by David Nicoll and Wes Quave, and “Double Double Joint,” an instrumental written and performed by Richard Lawrence Wolf.

While both “Hello Cyberdream” and “Double Double Joint” are catchy, the former isn’t completely listenable out of context like “The Ghost is Here” and “It’s Terror Time Again” from Zombie Island. What doesn’t help is that the lyrics of “Hello Cyberdream” seem to more or less describe what’s happening onscreen during the montage in which it's used.

As with Zombie Island, Cyber Chase represents many firsts and lasts for Scooby-Doo. Cyber Chase is the final film in what’s considered the “dark era” of Scooby-Doo animation, which consists of the first four direct-to-video features and is marked by a generally darker color palette, more realistic tone and real monsters. As such, this is also the last film to have Mystery, Inc. in their attire from Zombie Island, returning to their “classic” attire from then on.

Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase features a brighter color palette
while keeping the more realistic appearances of Mystery, Inc.;
L-R: Scooby-Doo (Scott Innes), Shaggy (Scott Innes), Velma (B.J. Ward),
Daphne (Grey DeLisle) and Fred (Frank Welker).

On the voice acting side, Cyber Chase is the last time that Scott Innes voices both Scooby and Shaggy, though he has come back from time to time for commercials and games, the final time that B.J. Ward voices Velma and the first time that Grey DeLisle voices Daphne following the passing of Mary Kay Bergman.

Perhaps most notably, Cyber Chase is considered the last official Hanna-Barbera production, since afterwards, Warner Bros. would fully absorb the studio following the passing of William Hanna, to which Cyber Chase is dedicated. This film is also the first Scooby-Doo production animated entirely digitally, as opposed to animation cels, and is also the last movie to be animated by Japanese studio Mook DLE.

Appropriately enough, Cyber Chase is also the only Scooby-Doo film to receive a tie-in video game, which released on the PlayStation and Gameboy Advance the same year, 2001. Although we have yet to play either version, I’ll note that our DVD copy came with a handful of tips for playing through the game, although it’s disappointingly pretty basic information. On a much less important note, our DVD copy is also so old that it still has a 16-years expired coupon for Frigo Cheese Heads String Cheese.

One more minor note about Cyber Chase regards the Creeper (Scott Innes), a villain who appears during the final act and the only one actually from the original cartoon, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! As with other Scooby-Doo media, this film continues the misconception that the Creeper has no dialogue apart from repeating his own name. However, in the original episode in which he appears, Jeepers, It’s the Creeper, he actually repeats the word “Paper” in reference to an incriminating photo of his identity.

The Creeper (Scott Innes) as he appears in Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase.

While Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase is very flawed on an objective level, especially with regard to its storytelling and internal logic, it’s still an enjoyable movie. I might personally attribute this to nostalgia, since I loved watching it as a kid for being one of the few pieces of media to represent video games in a more positive light, but I won’t really fault anyone for enjoying this film unironically. I would recommend this more to Scooby-Doo fans looking to relive their childhood or people who are going through a Scooby-Doo kick and are willing to watch something flawed, yet entertaining.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Review Hub - Laika

Since the studio's founding in 2005, following the dissolution of claymation studio Will Vinton Studios in 2002, Laika has remained dedicated to the art of stop motion, proving time and again the capabilities of what can be done in the medium. Following the standard set by their debut feature Coraline, Laika films often feature dark themes and intricate effects pulled off in increasingly creative ways that only become more impressive once you remember that it's almost entirely stop-motion. Travis Knight, the studio's lead animator since the beginning, has since become a director starting with Kubo and the Two Strings, even quickly making the jump to live-action with Hasbro's Bumblebee, though he remains dedicated to the art of stop-motion and unleashing its full potential.

Below is a list of links to every review of a Laika film on this blog, presented in order of release.

The Boxtrolls
Kubo and the Two Strings

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Coraline - Be Careful What You Wish For

In 1978, claymation legend Will Vinton founded Will Vinton Studios, an animation studio dedicated to the art form. In need of funding in the late '90s, Vinton found an investor in Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, who would introduce his son Travis Knight to the studio as an animator. In 2002, Knight would acquire the studio and in 2005, would resurrect Will Vinton Studios, as Laika, named after the dog famously launched into space as a Russian flight test.

Based on the dark fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman, Coraline was adapted into then-upcoming studio Laika’s first major film production in 2009, directed by Henry Selick of The Nightmare Before Christmas fame. While I did not see this film when it first hit theaters (it was at a time when I was more sensitive to scary imagery such as those seen in the trailers), I have since gone back to it and have ended up seeing it three times, the first of which was through an underwhelming 3D home video release. While Laika’s animations have definitely improved over the years as they learn/discover new stop-motion techniques, it’s sometimes nice to go back and see where it all began, and after 9 years the movie holds up surprisingly well.

After moving to a new home (Pink Palace Apartments, a flat shared by other patrons) in a new state so her parents could pursue a book on gardening, Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) isn’t happy with the way things are; her parents generally ignore her as they hastily finish putting their book together to sell to a publisher and she meets a new kid named Wybie (short for Wyborne or “why born”) (Robert Bailey Jr.), whom she quickly grows to dislike. While exploring the house on the first day, Coraline discovers a small door hidden behind some wallpaper in the living room and gets her mother to open it with a special key inside the house, only to discover it had been bricked up. That night, Coraline is compelled to try the door again, this time entering a world where everything about the Pink Palace is exactly the same. However, she soon meets her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) and Father (John Hodgman, singing voice by John Linnell), simulacra of her parents (except with black buttons for eyes) who will give her just about anything she wants. Though Coraline continues going back to the Other World at night, something sinister lurks within its inviting atmosphere.

The story is written well and is pretty easy to follow, making for a stronger narrative as a result. I have not read the book on which the film is based, though I will say the movie works well on its own, making it accessible to a wider audience. I do know, however, that the character Wybie was created for the movie, primarily so Coraline could have someone to talk to and make things more visually interesting. Whether not Wybie is a good addition to the story depends entirely on opinions from those who have actually read the novel, though I personally didn’t mind his involvement in the plot.

Coraline (Dakota Fanning, center) with her Father (John Hodgman, left)
and Mother (Teri Hatcher, right) in the real world.

The voice acting is also good, sporting some good talent from then-15-year-old Dakota Fanning as the titular Coraline, as well as a solid performance from the popular Keith David. Teri Hatcher (Coraline’s Mother and Other Mother) and John Hodgman (Coraline’s Father and Other Father) get points for being able to make each of their respective characters’ counterparts feel different from each other, adding to the sense of immersion in the film’s world. John Linnell from They Might Be Giants shows off his vocal talents when the Other Father sings, doing so in such a way that the shift between his singing and Hodgman’s speaking lines is almost seamless.

For Laika’s first movie, the animation holds up really well, setting the stage for future movies to come and proving the capabilities of stop-motion with the right talent. That said, the animation gets a little noticeably jerky at times, particularly in some scenes in the Other World, though considering the type of movie it is, it’s hard to tell whether it was done intentionally for atmosphere or if it was done by accident as a result of it being Laika’s first feature-length production. Fans of The Nightmare Before Christmas may find the art style to be somewhat reminiscent of that, although I chalk this up to both movies being directed by Henry Selick.

Coraline remains a great example of what can be done with stop-motion. The story holds up well and is backed by some amazing voice talent and animation, the latter of which would only be improved upon in future Laika films. I would recommend this movie to fans of stop-motion and/or Neil Gaiman’s body of work, particularly fans of the Coraline novel that have not seen the adaptation yet and want to form their own opinion. If you watch Coraline and enjoy it, I would recommend giving Laika’s other movies so far (ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings, as of this writing) a shot as well.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Marvel's Spider-Man (2018) - Spectacularly Amazing

As both a Spider-Man and Insomniac Games fan, I was excited upon the official announcement that the two would come together for a game released exclusively on the PlayStation 4. While many of the Spider-Man games have been based on the comics or films series in some way, this game would be set in a new Spider-Man universe that incorporated elements from other continuities (including the now-defunct Ultimate comic line), including a large number of Spidey Suits based on suits from other continuities (among them the suit that Spider-Man’s MCU counterpart wears in Avengers: Infinity War). After having played the game (via a Best Buy pre-order that included a free physical copy of Destiny 2 of all things), I can definitely say that this is one of the better video game representations of Spider-Man.

After trying to catch him for years, Peter Parker/Spider-Man finally faces off against Wilson Fisk/Kingpin. Once Spider-Man manages to defeat him and have him arrested, Fisk warns him that things will only get worse with him behind bars. Fisk’s words turn out to be prophetic, as a new threat known as the Inner Demons threatens New York City, leaving Spider-Man to try and solve who is behind it. Meanwhile, Peter has also been studying alongside Dr. Otto Octavius on a scientific breakthrough in prosthetic limb technology.

With a new continuity to play around with, Insomniac manages to tell a rather engaging Spider-Man story that incorporates familiar elements in clever ways, such as the origins of certain characters and elements of Peter Parker’s backstory (delivered through dialogue), as well as some perfectly-timed meta humor based in Spider-Man media. Some things that are more or less common elements in most Spider-Man lore (ex. the death of Uncle Ben, Peter’s romantic pursuits with Mary Jane Watson, Peter’s tenure at the Daily Bugle) are largely implied through exposition via throwaway lines, though I feel this game (in a similar fashion to the Batman: Arkham series) was able to get away with this due to Spider-Man being arguably Marvel’s most ubiquitous character.

The graphics for the game are simply stunning, sporting a visually-appealing yet detailed art style that’s stylized enough to avoid the uncanny valley. The designs for Spider-Man’s and villains’ costumes are unique and interesting to look at, particularly in how said designs capture the essence of each character and their abilities. New York City is rather highly-detailed, taking full advantage of the PS4 to render things such as reflections, water and different weather conditions, along with a guest appearance from Avengers Tower to ground the narrative within the larger Marvel universe. Certain famous landmarks from both the real and fictional versions of New York City, such as the Daily Bugle and the Flat-iron building, can also be seen when swinging around and taking a picture of them in Photo Mode even nets you a bonus (more on that later).

There's also another, separate photo mode that lets you take your own screencaps
(unlike this review).

The music is really good in capturing each moment properly, with certain tracks playing appropriately depending on the situation. A particularly great track is the triumphant music that plays whenever you’re traversing New York City, as it really adds to the feeling of playing as Spider-Man and makes you want to keep web-slinging. The voice acting is another point of praise, with each of the voice actors being able to capture each character well. Yuri Lowenthal, who has had prior experience in the 2017 Spider-Man cartoon (albeit voicing villains), does a really good job as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, showing an impressive range for the character as he tries to balance superhero business, work and a social life. Two other stand-outs are William Salyers as Otto Octavius and Darin De Paul doing an impressive J. K. Simmons impression as J. Jonah Jameson, whose voice is heard in broadcasts of a radio show.

The combat is a bit like the rhythmic combat found in the Arkham series with spider powers and gadgets added in. Often you are battling waves of enemies at once, whose fighting styles range from close-quarters to guns and rocket launchers, as well as shields that block direct attacks. Certain abilities are in place to take advantage of Spider-Man’s abilities and agility, such as the ability to dodge around and under foes, as well as webbing objects in the environment to use as blunt instruments. Skill Points, obtained by earning enough EXP and leveling up, can unlock additional skills for use in combat, such as the ability to take the opponent’s weapons/shields away with webs and throw them right back at them, as well as perform ground pounds to throw enemies off-balance.

Gadgets (more on that later) can also greatly help in combat, including Electrical Webs, Web Bombs and Spider-Drones to aid in crowd control (there’s also a weapon wheel to help choose which gadget you want to use, in true Insomniac fashion). There is also a Focus mechanic, which by default fills up as you land hits on bad guys, which can be used to heal yourself in a pinch. As I had never played the Arkham games (only watching someone else play), this style of combat took me a while to get used to, however it worked really well once I got used to the rhythm.

Alongside the gadgets are a number of Spidey-Suits (27 in total) based off of various incarnations of Spider-Man, usually unlocked by fulfilling certain requirements. These suits include the aforementioned Infinity War suit, as well as costumes from the 2099 comics and the Sam Raimi films, among several others. Each of these suits also comes with a unique ability that can be activated at any time by clicking both sticks, such as creating shockwaves and making oneself temporarily un-blockable; my favorite is Web Blossom, which webs all enemies around Spider-Man and can make for effective crowd control. An array of Suit Mods can also be unlocked, of which up to three at a time can be equipped, which can provide an array of passive benefits for Spider-Man such as reducing damage from certain weapon types and manipulating how much/often Focus can be generated. While reading about the number of customization and combat options may sound overwhelming, the end result is handled in a such a way that it really isn’t.

The Iron Spider suit, included as a pre-order bonus, based on Avengers: Infinity War.

While the more open-world style of gameplay is a perfect fit for Spider-Man, there are fortunately plenty of things to do to entice exploration and help upgrade/unlock abilities. There are a number of sidequests available, more of which become available as you go, which earn you more EXP upon completion to level up faster. This also applies to other things that unlock over time, such as Taskmaster Challenges (disarming bombs set by Taskmaster), clearing out Fisk/Demon Bases, completing Oscorp Research Stations, stopping various types of Crimes and tracking down Black Cat. There are also a number of Backpacks strewn throughout the city, each of which contains an item of personal interest to Peter Parker and fills in details of his backstory in the game (while occasionally making some subtle meta humor about other versions of Spider-Man). Webslinging around New York to get to these is really fun to do once you get the hang of it, though the later ability to Fast Travel to specific locations (such as police stations and plot-critical buildings) can be a real time-saver in a pinch.

Performing each of the aforementioned tasks (sans Black Cat) nets you different types of Tokens (no less than five), any combination of which may be required to unlock Suits and abilities, as well as upgrading Gadgets. The Token system is a lot to work with and can lock you out of certain things for some time depending on your playstyle, though for some this is simply an excuse to continue exploring the city for all it's worth.

New York City seen from atop a skyscraper.

While the combat draws inspiration from the Batman: Arkham games, there’s other similarities that I had noticed during my playthrough. The Black Cat side missions, in which you needed to locate toy cats in a given space, made me think back to the Riddler Trophies seen throughout the Arkham series, though finding the cats requires far less effort than the Riddler’s neon green nightmare. On the subject of nightmares, following the introduction of this game’s version of the Sinister Six (seen in a trailer) in the third act, there is an entire section featuring segments somewhat reminiscent of the Scarecrow segments in the Arkhams Asylum and Knight, during which Spider-Man has to prevent losing his sanity while dealing with Scorpion. There was, however, some effort made to make Scorpion’s hallucinations stand out from Scarecrow’s.

Spider-Man (2018) is one of the best Spider-Man games to be released, if not one of the best superhero games. A lot of attention is paid to Spider-Man lore (both old and new) for fans to enjoy, plus there is a well-crafted story that takes an interesting turn on said world. The combat is enjoyable and offers a vast array of options (even more so than a typical Ratchet & Clank game), plus the graphics are amazing and take full advantage of the system’s capabilities. Fans of Spider-Man and/or the Batman: Arkham games should give this game a try; the world presented in the game draws from familiar Spider-Man elements as well as more recent additions to the Spider-Man mythos (which I only found out from some quick research after finishing the game as I have not been keeping up with the comics), though the game manages to organically weave these elements together to form a world that offers something for both new and long-time fans of Spider-Man.