Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 10

Dracula Untold (2014)

Hollywood always learns the wrong lessons from the big hits. After Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy made exactly a bazillion dollars, suddenly every big action movie had to be “dark and gritty.” After the success of “The Avengers,” every superhero movie had to have a lot of superheroes in it. And now, after Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has proven itself to not be a fluke, every studio wants its own cinematic universe. Some of these make more sense then others. It’s not surprising that Universal Studios would want to do the same with their classic monsters. After all, the monsters are Universal’s Mickey Mouse, their iconic characters recognized world over. Even the shared universe makes sense, since Universal sort of did that first back in the forties, when Frankenstein met the Wolfman. Yet going into “Dracula Untold,” the first of what the studio promises to be many new monster movies, my expectations were abyssal low. The classic monster movies that I love so much are horror movies. These new movies are fantasy/action flicks with horror trappings, largely in the mold of “300” or even the widely loathed “Underworld” franchise.

“Dracula Untold,” like every other fucking thing Hollywood makes these days, is an origin story. The film begins with the Cliff Notes’ version of Vlad “the Impaler” Dracula’s real life, of how, as a teenager, he was abducted by the Ottoman Turks and trained in war, develop his penchant for impaling, and returned to Transylvania to rule as a crowned prince. Instead of going into complicated matters of Ottoman imperialism or Transylvania being a Christian country in a primarily Islamic area, “Dracula Untold” characterizes the prince’s rebellion against the Turks as something much more personal. When the Sultan demands a thousand boys as tribute, including Vlad’s own son, Dracula refuses and declares war against the Turks. Realizing he can’t win this war on his own, he travels to a mountain cave and meets an ancient vampire. Drinking the creature’s blood, and becoming a superhuman supernatural being, gives Dracula the strength to protect his family and country. At, perhaps, the cost of his soul.

I want to clarify, first, that I didn’t hate “Dracula Untold” and actually think a handful of things it does are clever. However, I have a big problem with the movie. In order to turn Dracula into the hero of this story, it widely paints the vampire count as a misunderstood victim of circumstances, whose devilish acts were motivated by noble causes. The movie spends a lot of time focusing on Vlad’s love for his wife, his bond with his son and with his fellow countrymen. He explicitly becomes a vampire in order to save the people and kingdom he loves. The cruelty he shows against his enemies is shown as a result of his tortured childhood. In order to make Dracula even more of a misunderstood anti-hero, the film imposes a lot of silly regulations on Vlad’s vampiric condition. When he drinks the ancient vampire’s blood, he gains powers for three days. If he doesn’t drink blood for three days, he’ll loose these powers and revert back to a human, a fairly absurd dramatic contrivance. Of course, Dracula does drink blood. This wouldn’t be an origin story, otherwise. However, he does so not because he’s ultimately a rotten person deep down. He does so in order to save his country and son, characterizing his vampiric state as an act of self-sacrifice. If he didn’t drink blood, this Dracula wouldn’t be a monster at all but rather an action-ified superhero.

Yet a few of the things “Dracula Untold” does in this regard are sort of fun. After slurping Charles Dance’s blood, Dracula wakes up outside the mountain. He suddenly realizes his newly found super-strength and enhanced senses, a surprisingly clever moment. Something repeatedly featured in the trailers is Dracula transforming into and controlling huge hordes of bat. “Dracula Untold,” indeed, runs with this. Drac forming a million bats into a giant fist and crushing a whole army probably could have been goofy on page but, to the film’s benefit, it works on screen. It’s also of interesting that “Dracula Untold” does pay tribute to its title character’s long-standing status as a monster. The film does indeed acknowledge the vampire’s weakness to Christian symbols. In the last act, Vlad descends on the Turkish army with his own army of vampires, who drink blood and remorselessly slaughter innocents. Naturally, the film entirely undermines this with a later scene where Vlad protects his own son from these other, worst vampires. Ultimately, though, when I expected “Dracula Untold” to totally soften all of its main character’s rough ages, I appreciate that the movie focuses on it a little.

“Dracula Untold” isn’t much of a horror movie though. It is, ultimately, an action flick. Some of this stuff is cool. Drac does indeed decimate multiple armies, Luke Evans piling up a huge body count. One highlight has him taking down an entire army all by himself. Bodies are tossed into the air by his strength. Director Gary Shore pulls off a few clever shots, like the battle being reflected in the blade of a soldier’s sword. Sometimes though, the film falls to the problems of modern action flicks. The camera shakes several time, in order to obscure graphic dismemberment that could have been more readily shown in an R-rated film. (Having said that, the movie is still pretty violent, with chopped-off arms and impaled bodies still shown in full view.) The final battle between Vlad and the film’s main villain, Dominic Cooper’s Mehmad, is tricky though. After a whole movie of the count being an unstoppable bad ass, one normal guy holding his own against him is hard to buy. The screenwriters’ remedy to this – having the fight take place in a room covered with silver – is mildly clever but it still doesn’t washes. Also, the re-shoots made to place the film as part of a bigger cinematic universe is fairly obvious. A Renfield-like gypsy appears suddenly and a mostly extraneous epilogue is set in the modern day, showing that Dracula and his arch-enemy are still around. This stuff doesn’t add much to the movie.

I have yet to be sold on Luke Evans. The guy is far more pleasant then the similar Sam Worthington. Evans has got the look of an old fashion swashbuckler, equal parts Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, but lacks their charm. His performance is blustery and dour. Sarah Gadon, as his love interest, is equally bland. Diarmaid Muryah, as one of Vlad’s brother in arms, is having more fun, as is Charles Dance as the hammy Master Vampire. The movie’s look is about what you’d expect. The thing is edited like a trailer, with every shot being designed to make as big of an impact as possible. Some of Gary Shore’s shots, like a silhouetted Vlad standing around his fallen enemies, are genuinely great. Others, like a slow-motion shot of the count climbing a mountain, his cape melodramatically blowing in the wind, are laughably overwrought. The set design and costumes sure are purdy though.

So “Dracula Untold” is uneven. It has enough interesting ideas to keep from being completely generic, even if the rest of the film achingly strives in that direction. How does it bode for the rest of Universal Monsters in this rebooted age? The monsters being the heroes going forward is potentially interesting. Yet I can’t see this format working very well for Frankenstein or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. On the same level, I can imagine the team-up being a blast. If the upcoming “The Mummy: The First Monster” is an epic action/fantasy set in the world of Egyptian mythology, that could be very cool. We’ll see. I’m skeptical but it’s hard to complain too much when the monsters are back. “Dracula Untold” is not a worst case scenario, even if it's far from the best. (And I’ll continue to wonder what Alex Proyas’ version would have looked like and suspect it would have been better and more interesting.) [6/10]

Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965)
Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon / Frankenstein vs. Baragon

I first heard about “Frankenstein Conquers the World” in “Hollywood Dinosaurs,” a VHS compilation tape I watched repeatedly as a kid. The premise struck me as totally bonkers. A movie about a giant Frankenstein Monster that battles a fire-breathing dinosaur? That a Japanese Frankenstien movie existed, sure. Even making him giant seemed plausible. But did he have to fight an expy of Godzilla? “Frankenstein Conquers the World,” truthfully, followed an even odder path. It started with Willis O’Brien’s “King Kong vs. Frankenstein” idea, the animator’s unrealized sequel to that classic film. A complicated path led that movie to Toho where the studio rightfully switched out the giant Frankenstein with Godzilla. However, Toho obviously liked the idea of a giant version of Frankenstein’s Monster. After considering a film where Godzilla would battle the reanimated corpse, they eventually swapped the Big G out for new creation, the tunneling Baragon. So “Frankenstein vs. Baragon” is less the result of widget-ness then it is the result of a savvy studio balancing the properties it had the rights to.

“Frankenstein Conquers the World” does an amazingly good job of justifying its nutty premise. In the final days of World War II, the Nazi military locates the immortal, undying heart of Frankenstein’s Monster. Hoping to avoid detection, the heart is moved to Japan via U-boat. Unfortunately for the Axis, the heart is taken to Hiroshima on the day the nuclear bomb is dropped. Fourteen years later, a strange boy is found wandering the forest around Hiroshima, killing cats and dogs for food. Despite his frightening appearances and strange behavior, he’s taken in by Dr. Bowen and Dr. Togami. After learning about the Nazis transporting the heart to Japan, they realize that the boy is Frankenstein’s Monster, grown from the heart and mutated by radiation. Frankenstein continues to grow, escapes, and causes some accidents. Meanwhile, death and destruction around the country is blamed on the ever-growing Frankenstein. In truth, a burrowing dinosaur named Baragon is responsible. It’s not long before the two giants come in conflict.

Toho gets it. The Japanese studio has always understood that the best monsters, even the most destructive ones, are sympathetic to a degree. Even in his hyper-destructive first appearance, there was something sad about Godzilla. Frankenstein, even as a giant, remains the perpetual outsider. In his earlier appearance on-screen, he’s hit by a car, people frightened by his appearance, rejected by society. As his size changes, Frankenstein is put in chains and a cage. People fear him and want to cut him up. Once he escapes, he accidentally causes a few deaths, unaware of the damages he’s doing. One of the most striking moments in the film has the monster emerging from a lake, approaching a cruise ship full of passengers. He’s merely curious but the partiers flee in terror. Despite never intentionally hurting anyone, the military seeks to destroy Frankenstein. Recalling “King Kong,” Frankenstein develops a crush on Dr. Togami and, more then once, she soothes the beast’s savage heart. In the final reel, while battling Baragon, he rescues another scientist, proving to the world that he’s not a bad guy. In the last minutes of the film, a massive earthquake swallows up Frankenstein, causing the film’s heroes to remark on his strange innocence and the world always poised to reject him.

The giant Frankenstein isn’t the only monster in the movie either. It’s easy to dismiss Baragon as a blatant copy of Godzilla. After all, both are dinosaurs that have survived to the modern day. Both shoot fiery beams from their mouths. Heck, both are even played by Haruo Nakajima. However, Baragon is ultimately a distinct creation. The dinosaur isn’t explicitly radioactive, though that leaves his beam weapon unexplained. He’s a burrower, described as surviving the extinction event by digging deep into the ground. The only Godzilla that burrows is the American one we don’t like to talk about. Baragon’s also got a cool horn on his head, that glows to illuminate the underground passages. Appearance wise, there’s something vaguely canine about his face. Baragon’s eyes, flat face, and whiskers recall a pug. His big floppy ears are like a dog too. There’s very little dinosaurian or reptilian about his wide, round snout too. Baragon’s an oddball critter but I like him. It’s a charming creation and his digging gives him a unique edge. Nakajima’s performance is lively and the suit is more versatile then the Godzilla suit, as Baragon can go on two or four legs without being awkward like the similar Varan.

As the Japanese title, “Frankenstein vs. Baragon,” suggests, the movie is building towards a big rumble between the two beasts. Unlike most Toho kaiju duels, Frankenstein is not played by an actor in a cumbersome, rubber suit. He’s an actor clad in a giant loincloth and a simple head appliance. This allows for a more dynamic, fluid battle. Koji Furuhata is surprisingly expressive as Frankenstein. He judo-throws Baragon, swings him overhead, tosses rocks at him, and swings trees and burning torches at the monster. The two monsters don’t interact much before the final battle but it’s worth the wait. The energetic fight that ends “Frankenstein Conquers the World” is one of my favorite moments in all of giant monster history.

Another charming element of the film is its lead actors. Nick Adams and Kumi Mizuno starred in the same year’s “Monster Zero.” Adams and Mizuno had great chemistry together in that film but they actually spend more time together here. Though the film never directly addresses it, the implication is that Bowen and Togami are dating. Nick goes over to her apartment, dressed in a kimono, to eat a traditional Japanese meal. Later on, he cooks her a traditional American meal: Grilled hamburgers. He even wears a chef’s hat and apron while he does it. It’s also fun to see Kumi Mizuno, usually cast as the sexy femme fatale, in the role of the good girl. Adams and Mizuno were dating at the time so the great chemistry they showed on-screen obviously carried over into reality.

“Frankenstein Conquers the World” doesn’t present the same deep, sociological reading as some of Toho’s earlier kaiju epics. However, there’s enough in the film to make me wonder. By linking his origin directly to Nazi Germany and the bombing of Hiroshima, you’d think Frankenstein would be a symbol of World War II. Yet the creature is an innocent. Baragon, meanwhile, is the destructive one, tearing through a village in the countryside and wrecking an oil rig. So what does that mean? Early on, one of Nick Adams’ dying patients knits him a pillow. After she dies, Bowen and Togami visits the girl’s grave, which is next to a traditional Shinto temple. Frankenstein, after all, is stitched together from dead bodies. So is Frankenstein representative of those lost in World War II? And what does that make the aggressive Baragon, some symbol of the violent nature of humanity? There’s no clear sign but I can’t help but to look and wonder.

“Frankenstein Conquers the World” has become a fan favorite, not just for its wacky premise, but because it’s genuinely quite good. The monster battle is energetic and entertaining, the cast is appealing, and the movie successfully mixes what people like about American monster movies with what people like about Japanese monster movies. [8/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Beauty Rest

It’s not unusual for “Tales from the Crypt” to focus on people who are willing to murder to get ahead in their chosen career. In “Beauty Rest,” Helen is a struggling actress and model. After a great audition for a perfume commercial, the part winds up going to Helen’s roommate. Jealous and enrage, Helen accidentally kills the girl. Afterwards, she discovers that the roommate was invited to a beauty pageant, and promised the win. Helen discovers, too late, that this beauty pageant is different then what you’d usually expect.

Story-wise, “Beauty Rest” is not too different then your typical tale. A bad person does bad things to get ahead, thus earning a suitably ironic demise. Yet Helen is one of the more sympathetic “Tales” protagonists. Maybe this is because Mimi Rogers never looses sight of the character’s humanity. Or, maybe, it’s because Helen’s had her dreams repeatedly stepped on, just barely loosing out on the things she desires, usually to people close to her. Yes, she’s jealous and petty but, unlike your usual “Crypt” killers, she maybe does deserve better then she gets. So when she kills, there’s something understandable about it. This gives “Beauty Rest” an edge many of the other episodes lack. You care about her, which makes the ironic punishment that comes seem especially cruel. When Helen finally does win, she winds up dead. Sad. It also invites a not-too-flaterring look at “Tales” gender-politcs but I won’t get into that. With an atmospheric score from Alan Silvestri and strong supporting parts for Buck Henry and Anders Hove, “Beauty Rest” is one of the my favorite episodes of season four. [8/10]

So Weird: Troll

“Troll” is “So Weird” in a whimsical mood. While traveling through Minnesota, the tour bus comes to a bridge that’s out. While waiting for a repairman to come and lower the bridge, the Philips family waits at a local Scandinavian restaurant run by a seemingly nice old lady. Turns out, she’s not so nice. After asking everyone a series of questions, and after the fail to get one right, the old woman slowly turns the group, one by one, into vegetables. As Fiona discover, the nice old lady is actually a troll and has been doing this same thing to travelers for years. And, unless she can successfully answer seven questions, she’s going to do the same thing to Fi and her family.

It’s good to know that “So Weird” can still be entertaining even during a goofier episode. “Troll” has fun with re-purposing classic mythology in a modern setting. Astrid the old lady hangs out by a bridge, asks questions, and even get connected to Ymir and other aspects of Norse mythology. Betsy Philips is winningly sweet, hiding a rotten center, as the old woman. Her scheme actually seems weirdly viable, as she also gets the person right after they’ve walked off-screen. Another fan aspect of “Troll” is that it begins with Fiona promising to swear off weird stuff for a week. It doesn’t work out for her but the subplot does deepen the relationship she has with her brother. The episode’s climax, which has the troll revealing its ugly true self and Fiona forced to answer seven questions, becomes surprisingly tense. Despite it’s lighter tone, the stakes here at still pretty high. The entire cast’s lives are at stake. The conclusion is a little contrived, with Fiona’s computer magically coming to help her, but I don’t mind. “Troll” is goofy but fun. As far goofy episodes of “So Weird” goes, I’d rank it above “Simplicity” and “Boo.” [7/10]


whitsbrain said...

"Dracula Untold"...I don't want the monsters to be the heroes.

Kernunrex said...

Ehh... bats as a giant fist? I'll wait for Netflix.

It seems to be like it'd be easy to make a shared Universal monster universe, if they'd just go about it the right way. Shamelessly copy Marvel: Van Helsing is the hero, who barely defeats the irrdeemably evil Dracula. Post-credits stinger: Van Helsing hears word of a gruesome creature terrorizing Bavaria and takes off. He'll need help, of course...

Bonehead XL said...

Universal is probably still smarting from the failure of Stephen Sommer's "Van Helsing" a decade ago. I'm sure the character will be introduced in the NuUniMonsters-Verse in the near future though.