The Man Who Laughs (1928)
“The Man Who Laughs” is another silent important to the evolution of the Universal Monsters without being a monster movie itself. As a follow-up to director Paul Leni’s visually spectacular “The Cat and the Canary,” it’s a step-back. Leni’s talent for expressionistic atmosphere is displayed a few times. An early sequence has an iron maiden appearing out of darkness. Gwynplaine’s origin story involves skeletons hanging from nooses, blowing in the icy wind. Eventually, a village with cramped architecture, not unlike in “Frankenstein,” shows up. That’s it. Those expecting shadowy corridors and black-and-white dread are going to be disappointed.
The story drags. King James II tortures a noble to death before selling his son to gypsy surgeons. A permanent rictus grin is carved into the boy’s face. (Man, why did Victor Hugo hate gypsies so much?) Through a convoluted series of events, Gwynplaine adopts a blind infant and meets up with a philosopher. Twenty years later, the three are working in a traveling freak show. Gwynplaine is the star attraction and the girl, Dea, is devoted to him. But he’s not happy, believing himself unworthy of love and fame. A duchess (Olga Baclanova, of later “Freaks” fame), takes interest in Gwynplaine, bringing the missing noble to the court’s attention. Costume melodrama and political scheming follows.
Nearly two hours, “The Man Who Laughs” feels much longer. The plot spends too much time with characters you don’t care about. Baclanova is unlikable, playing the 1690s equivalent of Paris Hilton. I’m still not sure what the motives of a villainous jester and noble who looked a little like Weird Al were. The sudden turn to swashbuckling action in the last act feels tacked on. Dea and her fellow circus performers being led to believe Gwynplaine is dead is blatant, second act drama escalation, though the way it plays out is rather nice.
“The Man Who Laughs” most enduring pop culture contribution can be seen in the appearance of the Joker. It’s no surprise that Jack Pierce’s grotesque, still unsettling make-up would inspire comic-dom’s most infamous villain. (It’s also no surprise that a recent remake dials back Gwynplaine’s deformity, making him far too handsome.) Once again, the film’s historical importance outweighs its aesthetic value. Real horror next time, I promise. [5/10]
Dollman vs. Demonic Toys (1993)
I’m not sure what inspired Charles Band to pair up Dollman and the Demonic Toys. Maybe neither rip-off proved popular enough to headline solo sequels. Either way, in 1993, the tiny titans faced off. For good measure, Ginger, the miniaturized nurse from 1992’s “Bad Channels,” is also thrown in. This is mostly so Brick Bardo can have an appropriately sized love interest. The two even get a little loving, sharing a sex scene in a kitchen drawer.
“Dollman vs. Demonic Toys” is cheaper then either original. Since Dollman is in-scale with the Toys, Tim Thomerson has to interact with over-sized props, which look fine, or actors in cheesy costumes, which don’t. The toy warehouse and kitchen sets, filled with giant accessories, are neat though. The cheapness comes from the extensive stock footage. Obviously, this fills in people who haven’t seen the previous installments. Knowing penny-pinching Charlie Band though, this was mostly done to save cash. Band actually directs this one and his direction is flat and television-like. The box lists the running time as 72 minutes. This includes the ten minute VideoZone and five minutes of credits. The actual film is only 52 minutes long, barely classifying as a feature. With all the stock footage, this means there's maybe a half-hour of new movie here.
The diminutive duel disappoints. None of the toys prove a match for Brick, each blasted away with ease. A clumsy, bleeding hobo resurrects the evil playthings without further explanation. Grizzly Teddy is replaced with a killer G.I. Joe doll named Zombietoid. You wouldn’t think this would matter but it does, especially since he goes down like a bitch. Baby Oopsy-Daisy had an agreeably raspy voice first go-around. Here, Frank Welker provides the voice, a high-pitched, annoying nasally whine. None of the Baby’s new dialogue is as amusing either. Half the run time is wasted setting up the premise, painfully sealing away every plot point from each previous film. The Toy’s plan proves half-baked, their demon master staying off-screen this time.
Phil Fondacaro, who horror fans might recognize from “Land of the Dead” and, uh, “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble,” plays the warehouse security guard. Like the previous one, he enjoys girlie magazines. Unlike the previous one, Phil kills hookers for the toys, a plot point that goes nowhere. Only Melissa Behr is on the material’s level. She doesn’t get naked but the movie never hesitates to put her in various skimpy outfits. I’m disappointed “Dollman vs. Demonic Toys” is so lackluster, considering the parent films were guilty pleasures. No wonder Brick Bardo and Ginger would never be seen again, the Demonic Toys not returning until Full Moon’s recent, bad, even cheaper days. [5/10]