Tim Burton is a brand name by this point. His signature gothic style, of black-and-white spirals and character who don’t own combs, has become so widely replicated that the director can’t help but rip-off himself. The diminished creative returns for his most recent films attest to this. So why was I so excited for “Frankenweenie?” I like the original short a lot. Even if Henry Selick was the real genius behind “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Burton’s stop-motion films are usually a good bet. The cast was exciting and not a single Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter in sight. Maybe just the idea of a kid’s film inspired by and visually patterned after classic horror was enough to excite me. (And, hey, I love dogs too.) I’m happy to report “Frankenweenie” met my somewhat reserved expectations.
Of course, it’s hard to say how much of “Frankenweenie” Burton is even responsible for. Trey Thomas is credited with “animation direction,” which sounds to me like he did most of the work. The story is ostensibly set in the modern day, if a brief line of dialogue about Pluto’s dwarf planet status is any indication, despite possessing a wholly 1950s nostalgic atmosphere, recalling “Edward Scissorhands.” One character, known only as Weird Girl, looks like she stepped right out of “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories." I can’t help but feel this is less a proper Burton film then it is an animated movie in his so instantly recognizable style.
For a classic horror fan, there’s a lot of references, homages, and throwbacks inside of this one. The movie starts with a film-within-a-film, amusingly presenting stop-motion animation in a stop-motion environment. The Frankenstein allusions go a little deeper then the obvious. Winona Ryder plays a girl named Elsa and a supporting character is modeled after Frankenstein’s Monster, speaking with a Boris Karloff lisp. They even wrap him up like a mummy at one point. There’s a lot more. The passionate science teacher is visually patterned after Vincent Price. Disappointingly, Martin Landau never attempts to impersonate Price’s signature voice. In the latter half of the film, a creature that heavily resembles Gamera wanders in, as do a gang of killer sea-monkeys that leap out of pools and chomp on popcorn. The references-heavy tone even makes a closet full of wire hangers look familiar. Of course, the black-and-white environment is gorgeous. The movie might actually be a little too scary for young kids. The body-horror-lite transformation of pet cat into monstrous cat-bat is played fairly straight, as is the Wererat stalking a gym teacher through the halls of the school. The spooky pet cemetery provides a lot of ambiance, especially in the scene where Sparky realizes his undead origins, one of the movie’s best. Danny Elfman's score doubtlessly recalls "Scissorhands" and even "Batman" but he still nails the retro-horror feel.
Over all, “Frankenweenie” is super cute. Sparky is adorable, it’s nice to look at, and is frequently funny throughout. It would be a great movie for horror fan parents to take their kids too. If you can really credit the movie to Burton, it’s one of the better films of his later-day period. [7/10]
Dr. Cyclops (1940)
Another Paramount film, presented by Universal in the Classic Sci-Fi Collection, and also more science fiction then horror. So I’ll be brief. Shoot in Technicolor, “Dr. Cyclops” is a mad scientist movie and also about one of the odder, reoccurring sci-fi/horror tropes – People shrunk to miniature size. I suspect this one continues to exist simply because of special effects. Full grown people appearing to be the size of dolls, pulled off through camera effects and clever sets, is a neat trick. “Dr. Cyclops” does feature some of the best effects of its era. A miniature horse looks especially convincing even today.
There’s not too much to the story. Albert Dekker goes over the top as the titular villain, though is still effectively nasty. I’m afraid the rest of the cast didn’t resonate with me much. Our heroic doctor comes off as rather close-minded. The comic relief, who speaks with an exaggerated Mexican accent, is embarrassing. There’s a lot of talk of radium. The opening title credits are presented in a similar manner to the original “Thing from Another World,” always a cool effect. “Dr. Cyclops” isn’t bad or painful or anything but fairly forgettable. The innovative special effects are the only real reason to seek it out. [5/10]
Black Friday (1940)
“Black Friday” is an interesting hybrid: A sci-fi/noir, that slips into horror as it goes along. The story revolves around a professor of English literature and his best friend, a brain surgeon played by Boris Karloff. Meanwhile, a vicious gangster is shot down by his traitorous gang, an injury that will render him a paraplegic, and crashes his car into the professor, causing a fatal brain injury. Karloff’s budding mad scientist gets the idea to transfer the healthy, if crippled, man’s brain into the dying man’s body. In most brain-swap stories, the transplanted brain immediately takes over the new body, a total personality shift. In this film, something like a split personality develops. Red Cannon, admittedly a pretty badass name for a 1940s gangster, takes over while Professor Kingsley sleeps. Safe in a new body with a new identity, Cannon sets off on a quest to eliminate his former partners in crime. At first, Karloff is justifiably horrified by the murders. Until he learns that the gangster has nearly a millionaire dollars hidden away… And is willing to share. That’s right, kids, greed is the real source of evil here. A man sells his best friend’s soul in return for some cold hard cash. (So that he can build a fancy new laboratory? Hey, everyone’s got their own priorities.)
“Black Friday” wraps up on a real satisfying note. After a close call with the police, the two return to their home town, seemingly everything back to normal. However, all it takes for the evil personality to resurface is the sounds of a police siren. The movie’s score is melodramatic and the “swirling newspaper” gag is used too many times. As it stands, it’s a solidly entertaining, if minor, entry in the Universal horror cycle. [7/10]