Monday, October 20, 2014

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) (8th Monster Movie Review of 8)

        All throughout October, I’ve posted reviews of all the classic Universal Monster movies, ranging from “Dracula”, to “The Mummy”, to “The Wolf Man”, and now where up to the eighth and final film of the series, the 1954 classic titled “Creature from the Black Lagoon”. This movie came out at a time when B Sci-Fi movies dominated the media. However, unlike all the other giant sized monster’s that came out at the time, like “Godzilla” and “Them!”, this creature was still at human height, and became so popular that he’s often regarded as the last of the classic monsters to come from Universal. This film’s very different from the other classic monsters, there isn’t an actor with speaking lines in the role of the monster, and it leans far more on Sci-fi then supernatural horror. You could make the Argument that both “The Invisible Man” and “Frankenstein” had a lot of Sci-Fi elements, but those films still had that same gothic look and feel, along with more traditional setting’s like castles and cemeteries. This movie is located in a swamp, mostly during the day and is set in present times, well, present at the time the movie was released. I honestly think it helps this film stand out, and personally, I think it’s one of the absolute best of the Universal monster movies. In fact, it’s easily my second favorite, next to “The Invisible Man” from back in 1933.  

        This is yet another monster concept that had no literal source material before the movie was released, it was completely original. Here’s the setup, when a group on an expedition in the Amazon discover a fossilized skeleton hand, it gains the attention of aquatic scientists who want to learn more about it, and an aria that locals call “The Black Lagoon”, where the fossil originated from. Soon this small team of explorers find themselves trapped in the lagoon, and at the mercy of a savage monster that’s slowly killing off the group, one person at a time. It’s a classic premise that would become a template for many popular monster movies to come, like “Jaws” and “Predator”. While combating the creature, the team also needs to find a way to work together, because they all have different goals, some members just want to leave the creature and escape, others want revenge on the beast for all the people that it’s killed, and one person wants to capture it and make a fortune on it. It’s a situation that builds at a brisk pace, and the movie has no shortage of exciting encounters with the creature. 

      Now you’d expect this movie to give some kind of scientific explanation regarding the creation of this monster, like it was mutated by nuclear radiation. However, much like most of the monsters I’ve discussed this October, the Creature from the Black Lagoon actually has his own mythos and lore. The fossil’s discovered indicate that this was in fact a species that has been around sense the dawn of man, and according to the ship’s captain, there’s local stories told from villages about people that are half man and half fish. This was a brilliant idea that added a lot more to the novelty and mystic of the creature. It’s not just a mutated apparition, this is a mysterious being that’s lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. The intro sets the tone and mood of the movie perfectly, going into a lot of detail about the creation of life on Earth. The music is also really good, in that campy monster movie style that was so common in the 1950’s. 

     The creature itself is often addressed in pop culture as Gill-Man, even the characters in the movie refer to him by this title. Personally, I prefer to just call him “the Creature”, because while Gill-Man is fitting, it also sounds really silly. The creature also has a great design, and the costume is surprisingly well done. This is the only monster in the Universal Monster collection to have a no big named celebrity in the role, and not just one, but two actors giving life to the monster. On land, the creatures played by Ben Chapman, but the real talent is Ricou Browning, who played the monster under water. His swimming talents are incredible, giving the creature a very alien movement. Plus, he didn’t have any breathing equipment, he actually had to hold his breath for four minutes between takes, and while wearing that heavy monster costume. There’s an especially cool scene when the creature actually gets into an underwater fist fight with a scuba diver, which blows my mind every time I see it. I can’t even begin to imagine how hard that must have been to maintain enough energy, not only getting into an underwater fist fight, but also while holding his breath and wearing that really heavy monster suit. Ricou continued to play the monster in the two following sequels, proving to be a very devoted monster actor.

     The remaining cast isn’t exactly great, but they do their jobs well. Richard Carlson dose a serviceable job as the films lead hero, and is a lot better than most of the generic boy friend characters featured in these Universal monster movies. Julie Adams is our female lead named Kay, and she is the text book definition of a damsel in distress. Thankfully, the actress manages to make her likable enough to care for, and her good looks don’t hurt either. Of cores it’s a tradition for there to be some kind of relation between the monster and the female lead, but this one’s probably the strangest. While the creature doesn’t hesitate to kill anyone else in the film, it takes its sweet time with Kay, studying her, and following her every movement, like some kind of sexual predator. There’s not just one, but three scenes in which the monster tries to kidnap her and take her for himself, which is really disturbing. The movie also makes it very clear that the creature has a high level of intelligence, this is demonstrated when it actually builds a dam to prevent the characters from escaping in their boat. So, there’s no way that his behavior toured our female lead is that of a mindless monster.

      One really big highlight of the film is its incredible cinematography, especially for the underwater scenes. The whole swamp setting just has this strong, other worldly feel, which also helps it feel isolated and eerie. While monsters like this obviously don’t exist, the movie still plays on our fears of being out in the water, with something mysterious and dangerous swimming right beneath your feet. I especially love the buildup surrounding the monster. At first we only get a small glimpse of his hand, then it attacks a tent, but we only see the victims getting killed, and our only clue of the monster are the scary sounds it makes. Then there are lots of nice little details, like the crew discovering strange footprints on their boat, and a fishing net that was torn to ribbons.

      The pacing is also really good, every scene builds on the other, and each encounter with the monster dose something different, but also very exciting. I especially love this one scene in which the monster is actually set of fire, as you’d expect, fire is the creatures one weakness. It all comes to a close with an exciting climax as the monster kidnaps the girl and retreats into its cave, with our hero’s not far behind. A man on monster brawl ensues, and everything gets wrapped up in a nice finale. I do wish that the film had more of an epilog, because there are some topics raised in the film that I feel didn’t get proper closure.     

        There were only two sequels that followed, “Revenge of the Creature” in 1955, and “The Creature Walks Among Us” in 1956, both average sequels by comparison. It’s interesting to note that “Creature from the Black Lagoon” doesn’t have any remakes, although there have been plans for a remake for years. Having said that, the Creature has obviously made other appearances in our pop culture, he was featured in the 1987 Horror comedy “The Monster Squad”, and there was a comedy film in which the monster met Abbott and Costello, proving that he’s still an important and iconic member of Universals movie monsters.    

     Overall, this is still a fun, good old fashioned monster movie. It’s faced paced, has an awesome monster, and it’s still one of my favorites of the Universal Monster collection. It’s the kind of movie that will play differently for different people. If you’re a really hard core monster fan, and love this formula, you couldn’t ask for a better film then this. Well, okay, there are better monster movies out there, but I like to think of this as the one that really started it all. This is where the template was introduce to main stream audiences, and I really believe that modern films ranging from “Alien” to “Anaconda” owe a lot to it. 

                          I give the 1954 “Creature from the Black Lagoon” 4 stars out of five. 

That’s it, my October marathon has concluded, hope you enjoyed it, and as always......

                          Happy Halloween!  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Phantom of the Opera (1943) (7th Monster Movie Review of 8)

      All October I’ve been reviewing movies about vampires, werewolves, mummy’s and reanimated corpses, but today’s monster is something very different, and completely human. The 1943 motion picture “The Phantom of the Opera”, is definitely the odd ball of the 8 classic universal monster movies. It’s the only film to be shot in color as opposed to black and white, it didn’t have any sequels, it’s based 100% in the real world with no science or sorcery, and even though it’s the first sound version of the film, it’s still not quiet as iconic as its silent movie predecessor. All the classic monsters had silent movies prior to the sound versions, but the 1925 silent film “The Phantom of the Opera” was a landmark achievement that’s often regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time, and is often regarded as the best film version of this characters story. When you combine that with the booming success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic 1986 musicale, the 1943 classic seems to fall by the waist side. This happens to be my least favorite installment of the 8 classic Universal monster movies, and just like my experience with “The Mummy”, I was introduced to several other renditions of the film, and the musicale first, which already put this at a disadvantage.

     The movie is based on the 1910 novel “The Phantom of the Opera” by Gaston Leroux, and keeping in tradition with all these movies, it changes some things from the book. Here’s the set up, Christine DuBois is a cores girl at an Opera, and many people there believe that she has so much potential to be a real star. One shy violinist named Enrique Claudin is determined to help Christine in her singing carrier, in fact he is obsessed with her vocal talents, and rights her a new song. His single obsession slowly starts ruining his life, he loses his job at the Opera and he owes a lot of people money. Then after he mistakes someone for stealing his music, a fight breaks out, which ends with acid being thrown in his face. While his face gets horribly burned, Claudin survives, steals a costume from the theater, and hides in the sewers. Now he becomes Christine’s watchful guardian, who dose all in his power to make sure that she becomes a famous singer, even if that means killing an actress or two in the process.

     My first big issue with this movie is that there’s nothing mysterious or interesting about this movies lead monster. Most other versions of “The Phantom of the Opera” portray him as this mysterious person who pears out to us from the shadows. Very little was known about him, and most of the characters were so frightened by his mystique that they mistook him for a ghost, which is why they called him the Phantom of the Opera. This movie however shows us his story from the ground up, we know how he got the disfigured face, we know who he was before hand, and we know exactly what he wants, which defeats his mystique entirely, and ruins all the fascination you could have for a character like this. The other characters don’t even refer to him as the Phantom of the Opera throughout the entire movie, everyone knows who he is, and what he’s capable off. Now this approach could have worked if he was the main character, but he really isn't, in fact he comes off like a secondary character, and isn't even featured that often in the film. Most of the attention is given to Christine, her carrier and her love life, which really undermines our films lead monster. I will say that I love all the shadow effects in which we see the phantoms shadowy outline against a wall, these are the only moments in the film in which he feels mysterious and foreboding. 

     One other compliment I should give to the film is its production design, which is quiet impressive. The sets are so detailed, so grand and sense it’s all in color, you can really take in the beauty, size and scope of its layout more than the other Universal monster movies. The theater's stage is always a dazzling and elaborate set. Even the underground sewers are very impressive to look at.    

      I also like the Phantoms overall design, the makeup for his scarred face is nothing special but his costume is really good. This is the film that introduced his iconic opera mask which would be universal in all his other media portrayals, and I really like his big hat which ties his costume together nicely. The Phantom is played by Claude Rains, a great actor who’s done well even in supporting roles like the father in “The Wolf Man”, but oddly enough, he seems to represent both the best and worst of what the Universal monsters have to offer. He was outstanding in the title role of “The Invisible Man” from the 1933 classic, and to this day, it’s still my favorite villain performance I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. However, his portrayal of the Phantom in this film is actually my least favorite of all the Universal monster performances. Personally, I just don’t think he was given much to work with, in “The Invisible Man” he had long monologues in which he elevated his voice in a way that was deeply thrilling to listen to. He also displayed a wide aroma of acting talents ranging from sympathetic, to funny, to frightening. As the Phantom, he’s only sympathetic, and while he does that well, he just doesn’t convey enough menace to leave an impression.

    In the plus column, our female lead Christine, played by Susanna Foster is fantastic, in fact, she might just be the best of all the female leads featured in any of these Universal monster movies. Not only is she incredibly beautiful, but she’s also charming, independent and has her own personal conflicts, choosing between the people she loves or the carrier of her dreams, which makes her a little more interesting. Now there are some small things to nit-pick about her, for example while she sings very well, her overall delivery feels just a little too over the top, but that’s why I’m not a singing critique because it’s probably fitting for an opera. Also, as usual she gets kidnapped, but this time it’s kind of embarrassing because she clearly could have put up a bigger fight, or at the very least call for help, considering that her friends were just around the corner. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. But that still doesn’t ruin her character, who is without a doubt one of the strongest female leads from the Universal monster movie catalogue.  

    Unfortunately, for every positive comment I can give this film, there’s always two more negative things to say, and now we get to the worst part of the movie by far. In most renditions of “The Phantom of the Opera” Christine has a boy friend named Raoul, who stands between her and the Phantom. Well, Raoul is featured in this film as a boy friend played by Edgar Barrier, but his character is all wrong. He’s an inspector who occasionally acts like a selfish jerk, and looks like he belongs in a “Pink Panther” comedy. Also, there’s this other opera singer who’s also in love with Christine, which is ridiculous, because the subtle love triangle of the novel has now become an overly complicated love square. It’s not like this other guy is there to be a victim, in fact, he’s a main lead that’s present from beginning to end, and even gets more screen time then Raoul, the boy friend were supposed to care for. The comedy in this film is atrocious, a lot of time is wasted with overly long scenes involving Raoul childishly bickering with the opera singer to win Christine’s hand. The movie at times feels like a completely different film, like a pore slapstick/ romantic comedy. It’s as if the writers forgot about the phantom, and through him into the plot at last second.  

     The passing in this movie is also a complete mess, some scenes drag, and are very dull, while others scenes come off as rushed, this is most evident during the climax. Of course we get the classic scene with the phantom dropping the chandelier during a live performance, but it’s so short and so rushed that we can’t savor any excitement. Then when Christine is kidnapped and taken into the lair of the Phantom, her two boyfriends immediately come to her rescue, and then a completely random cave-in collapses the phantoms lair, and gives our three hero’s a thrilling escape. I’m not joking, a random cave-in conveniently takes out the bad guy, and the whole climax is wrapped up in about five minutes. Now there is one cool moment when we see the Phantoms mask amongst the rebel, with his violin by its side, that would have been a strong note to end everything on, but unfortunately we have an epilogue. Christine turns down both of her boyfriends to pursue her singing carrier, leaving Raoul and the other guy to have another stupid comedy scene together, and everything ends on the lowest note you could possibly end this movie on.  

   The movies biggest problem is that it looms in the shadows of so many other superior versions of this story. Like I said earlierthe 1925 silent film “The Phantom of the Opera” is considered the immortal classic, and it doesn't stop there either. In 1962, Hammer studios released a remake of “The Phantom of the Opera”, and I actually saw this version first. While the production wasn’t quiet as big, I actually fond this to be a far superior movie with better characters, and far more mystery surrounding the Phantom. Once Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical rendition of “The Phantom of the Opera” hit the stage in 1986, everything changed. It was such a hit that people began to associate the character completely with the theater and music, forgetting about its horror movie roots. I doubt that you’ll ever see Dracula or Frankenstein ever go through a change as big or as ground breaking as what happened to The Phantom of the Opera.

      In 1989, there was yet another remake of “The Phantom of the Opera”, but this time it really tried to put the horror back into the character and the series. Robert Englund, famous for playing Freddy Krueger in “The Nightmare on Elm Street” also played the Phantom in movie. This version was very different from the other versions and far darker, with lots of gore, reincarnated spirits, demonic elements, and even odd things like time travel and the devil are featured. While I honestly liked this film on some level, it was just such a drastic change from the original, as well as a financial and critical failure, so it didn’t do the character any good. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical then made its transition to the big screen with a motion picture in 2004 starring Gerard Butler as the Phantom. While it wasn’t a critical hit, it was still successful, and has gained plenty of fans. I’ve actually grown to like this one a lot over the years, and it proves again that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical is the classic version of “The Phantom of the Opera”, even more classic then either of the original horror movies.    

       Overall, the 1943 movie version of “The Phantom of the Opera” is not a completely terrible film, it has incredible sets, its shot very well, the female lead is terrific, and there’s just enough excitement to hold your attention for a single viewing. Having said that, it is still the weakest of the eight Universal Classic monster movies, the villain just isn’t as interesting or as exciting as he should be, the supporting cast is terrible, the story always feels out of focus, the comedy is awful, and there’s so many other better versions of “The Phantom of the Opera” that are worth watching instead.

                     I give the 1943 movie “The Phantom of the Opera” 2 stars out of 5.  

NEXT TIME: Watch where you go swimming because the last of the Universal monsters comes from dark waters.  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Wolf Man (1941) (6th Monster Movie Review of 8)

     “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” That’s the movies famous line, and our motion picture for today is “The Wolf Man” from 1941. This monster is so famous, he’s often regarded as one of the three most legendary movie monsters of all time alongside Dracula and the Frankenstein monster. Even though this film is very tame by today’s standards, it’s arguably the most frightening, eerie and suspenseful of the Universal monster catalog, and one of my favorites.

    Our story unfolds like this, Larry Talbot has returned to his home town in Wales to meet with his father and offer his support after the passing of this brother. While exploring an antique shop, he falls in love with a village woman named Gwen, who compels him to stay for a while, and gives him a mysterious silver cane with the silver head of a wolf on the end. One night while the two are having a romantic walk through the woods, Larry fights off a sudden wolf attack and gets injured. Soon Larry finds himself losing his mind, and every night he transforms into a furious monster with an extreme impulse to kill. He seeks the aid of a gypsy woman who confirms that Larry is suffering from the curse of a werewolf. Now Larry fights to battle the beast within before he kills any of his family, friends or the love of his life.    

      I love how different this conflict is from the other Universal monsters, unlike Dracula or The Mummy, The Wolf Man isn’t an evil villain, instead he’s a tragic victim with an animal inside him that he can't control. I think that's why werewolves are so appealing, there freighting monsters, but there’s so much tragedy that goes into their back story. Unlike Zombies or Vampires, werewolves revert back to their human form, then the human side has to live with the terrible knowledge that they've taken innocent lives and that they’ll continue to kill with no way to control the beast within. I also like that this movie addresses the difference between a regular werewolf and the wolf man. In the beginning, we see Larry fight a werewolf which looks like a regular wolf on four legs, but when Larry transforms, he maintains his human body, just with a harry wolf appearance, that’s why he’s named The Wolf Man.

      Lon Chaney Jr. is our star and is fantastic in both roles. As Larry Talbot, he really plays to our sympathy and conveys an emotional performance full turmoil and nervous energy. As The Wolf Man, he displays a terrifying body movement, impressive stunts, and still manages to convey a lot, even through his impressive monster makeup. Lon Chaney Jr. became a very popular monster star and played in several other Universal horror movies, in a sense he followed in the footsteps of his father Lon Chaney senior, who was one the biggest horror star of the silent area of films in the 1920’s. In fact, he’s the only actor to continue to play his iconic monster throughout all the sequels and spinoffs that followed.

      The best thing about this movie is its scary scenery and haunting atmosphere. The foggy streets and creepy woods are great spectacles which really highlight the experience. The musical score is also fantastic, at times it’s quiet and subtle, which adds to the chilling atmosphere, and other times the music is exciting and classy. My favorite scene in the film and personally my favorite moment of the entire Universal monster movie collection is this one scene in which Larry rests against a tree and falls into some kind of strange hypnotic dream. It’s just a really cool montage of scary images, eerie music and it just makes the movie feel so much more haunting. None of the other monster movies featured scenes as awesome as this. One thing that may annoy some people is that we don’t see as many popular conventions that you’d usually see in a werewolf movie. For example, there isn’t a single shot of the full moon throughout the whole movie. There isn’t even a single transformation scene in the film, although there is a moment when we start to see his feet change into wolf feet.  

      The supporting cast is probably the greatest supporting cast to be featured in any of the Universal monster movies. Usually the supporting cast consist of average performers who’s names aren’t that well known, but this movie is full of stars, most of which already played classic Universal monsters. For example, Bela Lugosi, who originally played Dracula in the 1931 classic plays a gypsy in this film named Bela. This gypsy is the one responsible for passing the curse of the werewolf to Larry in the first place, and it’s interesting to note that Bela Lugosi also transformed into a wolf back in “Dracula”, making this one heck of an eerie coincidence. Also Claude Rains who previously played The Invisible Man in the 1933 classic and would later play The Phantom of the opera in the 1943 classic now plays Sir John Talbot, Larry’s father. Then there’s the gypsy woman who’s one of the most memorable characters from the series, and speaks the most classic lines of dialog in the film.

     Gwen Conliffe is our lead heroin and played by Evelyn Ankers, who basically made a carrier as a reoccurring star in several Universal Horror movies. She has a terrific screen presence and just works perfectly in a horror setting. While she isn’t that different from the other female leads, she still gets more involved than most of the others, and Evelyn just supplies a really genuine performance that isn’t as hammy as most of the other actresses. Sense she’s established as the wolf mans girl friend, you’d think this film would end with her getting carried away by the beast just like all the others, right. Well, this films actually very clever by making the climax an intense and eerie cat and mouse chase as Gwen gets lost in the woods looking for Larry Talbot, while The Wolf man is hunting her down ready to slay her, and Larry’s father John is also hunting down the wolf man, in an effort to free his son from his curse. It’s an exciting finally, with the most heart breaking ending of all the Universal monster films.

     Like I said earlier, Lon Chaney Jr. reprised is signature role of the wolf man in four more movies, however there were never any stand alone sequels, he only appeared in crossovers with other popular monsters. The first was “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” in 1943, and while it lacked the subtle eerie feel of the first film, it was still pretty entertaining, as were all the other crossover movies. Over the years there have been countless other werewolf movies, and countless Halloween specials featuring the Wolf Man as a main character. The one I personally remember watching the most as a child was “Alvin and the Chipmunks meet the Wolf Man”. In 2010, there was a remake of “The Wolfman”, which really wasn’t that bad, it wasn’t a great movie by any means but as far as remakes are concerned it at least captured the same look and feel of the original, with creepy scenery, an exciting montage of frightening clips and some great music.

       To this day, the 1941 motion picture “The Wolf Man” still holds up as an exciting and fun horror film. It never comes off as slow or boring, the atmosphere is great, the performances are strong, and the imagery still sticks with me after all these years. The whole story is just told very well, and it’s one black and white movie that I still recommend to this day.

                       I give the 1941 motion picture “The Wolf Man” 4 stars.

NEXT TIME: Well be looking at a much classier monster that comes from the theater.