Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 25

The Brides of Dracula (1960)
Another Hammer film I’ve always remembered loving, though I’ll admit it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. This time, rewatching, it certainly seemed to take a very long time to get going. The scenes of Marianne exploring the Meinstar castle are quite good and slowly form a foreboding atmosphere. I also love the idea of Baroness Meinstar, a great performance by Martita Hart by the way, knowing her son is a vampire and keeping him locked up. However, if you know the Baron is a vampire, and it’s fairly obvious even to first time viewers, the scenes don’t exactly have a lot of suspense to them. You’re pretty much just waiting for the Baron to get free and start with the vampiring. The fact that the film is almost over before Marianne is aware that the Baron’s a vampire doesn’t make her the most compelling Hammer heroine either. There are a few nice scenes of Marianne talking with her students, the best moments occurs over burnt toast, but generally I find the female parts here a bit thin. (They’re not as sexy either. Seems like the trademark Hammer light-eroticism didn’t become a part of the films until the next year’s “Curse of the Werewolf.”)

But once Van Helsing shows up, it’s a whole different movie. Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing remains my favorite take on the character. Cushing and the filmmakers continue to show Van Helsing as an action-ready combat pragmatist. Swinging from ropes, dangling from wind mills, tossing crucifixes across tables, and always confronting the evil head-on, Cushing’s doctor is the prototype for the current concept of the kick-ass vampire hunter. When the doctor starts talking about how all vampires are evil affronts to God’s goodness and must be eliminated thoroughly, it could sound bad coming out of anybody else’s mouth. But Cushing is as gentle as he is strong. You believe what he’s doing is right. The Hammer variety of vampires are a far cry from the morally neutral creatures of today anyway. Without Christopher Lee around, this movie becomes a full blown showcase for Cushing’s unique style of badassery. My favorite display of this trait is also one of the movie’s most famous, and unique, moments. After being bitten by the Baron, Van Helsing cauterizes the wound with a iron and dashes holy water on it. It’s a method for immediate vampire cure that I’ve never seen before or since. Van Helsing himself seems surprised that it works.

The movie is full of other interesting, indelible moments. The insane, cackling servant urging a fledgling vampire out of her grave is a great moment. Similarly, the discovery of the insane servant and the remorseful, transformed Baroness is another good, earlier moment. Van Helsing later puts the Baroness out of her misery, in a rare example of a sympathetic Hammer vampire. The scene of Gina rising from her coffin and attempting to “kiss” Marianne is another moment, dripping with casual lesbian undertones. And, of course, the entire final confrontation in the mill is a fantastic action set piece. After creatively saving himself from a vampire’s bite, Van Helsing cooks up an equally creative way to deal with Baron Meinstar. This movie continues to improve on and add to the Hammer style of foggy, English atmosphere. In that regard, it’s a better film then “Horror of Dracula.”

“The Brides of Dracula” has only one major distraction. David Peel sure ain’t any Christopher Lee. He’s too young and pretty to be intimidating and too flat to be charismatic. He’s a pretty weak substitute for Lee’s Drac. The way the brides are also assumed to perish in a fire off-screen at the end is also a bit anti-climatic. Overall though, “Brides of Dracula” is another Hammer classic and one of the studio’s best productions. (9/10)

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
One of my least favorite adaptations of the “Phantom” story. (Though, admittedly, the only version I really like is the Lon Chaney one and nothing tops the Dario Argento take for badness.) First off, the Phantom isn’t really a threat in this film at all. He’s not the villain of the piece. He doesn’t kill a single person. He doesn’t do anything except tutor Christine in singing and threaten Michael Gough. For whatever bizarre reason, this film takes the same origin for the Phantom that the 1945 Claude Rains-starring adaptation did. The Opera Ghost wasn’t born deformed, doesn’t have a history of assassination, and shows genius in no other category but music. The Phantom isn’t even Erik anymore, being recasted as Professor Petrie, once again someone who has his music stolen and has his face horribly burnt in an accident. The villain of the piece is obviously Michael Gough as the sleazy, asshole-y opera house owner and all of the violence, kidnapping, and traditional Phantom antics are delegated to a mute, dwarf assistant, another awkward addition to the tale. A sympathetic version of the Phantom certainly wasn’t unprecedented even in 1962, but a non-murderous one is unacceptable. Herbert Lom, a veteran genre performer even in the early 1960s, plays the Phantom as a scatterbrained, brain-damaged old man. It’s not a bad performance I suppose, but the character comes off as utterly neutered. The scene of a single tear running down his mask is hopelessly melodramatic.

I’ve never liked this one but decided to give it a fair shot. I only ended up noticing other problems. While Terence Fisher did a fantastic job of making the sets on the other Hammer films look like anything but, here his camera feels very boxed in. “The Phantom of the Opera” is the first Hammer film where it was obviously the movie was shot completely on sets. Instead of the story building to any sort of climax, we instead get a lot of singing. A lot of singing. Obviously it comes with the territory but the entire last ten minutes of the movie being devoted to an opera performance doesn’t match up to other last act Hammer theatrics. (The Phantom doesn’t even get his revenge on Gough, leaving two character arcs uncompleted.) The love story between Christine and Raoul-stand-in Harry is okay I suppose, and the couple get a few sweet moments, but it just feels like further stalling of the horror elements. I understand that it was a practical, budgetary decision, but relocating the story from Paris to London seems to drain a lot of its mythic power. London’s opera house certainly doesn’t have the history that Paris’ does.

Even with all of these issues, nobody could program a set-piece like Terence Fisher could. There are several memorable moments in an otherwise unmemorable film. The hanged body tearing through the curtain hand first and swinging towards both the figurative and literal audience is a fantastic scene. The Dwarf gets a great introduction, his face suddenly appearing in an opened window. Bach’s “Tocatta and Fugue,” so heavily associated with the character, is incorporated extraordinarily during the scene where Christine is kidnapped. The decision to have the Phantom himself crushed beneath the obligatory falling chandelier is a clever way to kill two birds with one stone as it were. I also like the red dropping curtain being one of the final images of the film. That’s appropriate. And though he throws the mask off for no reason other then the movie has to have an unmaksing scene, the Phantom make-up is very good, nicely gruesome while still being an accurate depiction of an acid scarred face. Heck, I even like the opening credit scene, as the camera hovers just over the water, watching the Phantom play his organ.

Hammer’s “Phantom of the Opera” definitely isn’t up to snuff with the classic Universal version, despite these stand out moments. The whole is definitely not the sum of its parts here. And the adaptations of the classic story would just continue to get further removed from the original novel’s tone, if not it’s story. And usually worse too, climaxing with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical for lonely housewives and the embarrassing sexypants film version, featuring a sun-burnt Gerald Butler as the titular villain. (I’ll give Weber this much, and this is the only time I’ll compliment his monstrosity, but at least his Phantom actually kills people.) (5/10)

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