Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, September 24, 2012

Halloween 2012: September 24

The Last Halloween (1991)
I had nearly forgotten about this, a half-hour TV special from ‘91, one of Hanna-Barbera’s few live-action productions. The story involves a brother and sister pair of trick r’ treaters, a candy factory closing and putting everyone in town out of the job, visiting aliens looking for fuel, and an old woman studying bugs in order to become immortal. That’s a lot of ground to cover in twenty-some minutes and some of those plotlines don’t get much development. The old woman, played by Rhea Perlman in a fright wig, is mostly a plot device to endanger our protagonists. She hangs out in a creepy Victorian mansion on a hill, has a laboratory full of bubbling chemicals, and a bumbling, monosyllabic henchman. (Who somehow isn’t a hunchback.) These are all nice horror-lite elements, even if they don’t add much.

The main attraction is the aliens. Considering this is a television production from a faltering studio in 1991, the special effects are extremely good. The Martians are brought to life with CGI and, while it’s primitive, it’s impressive for the time. The fact that the aliens are blatantly cartoons helps a lot. There’s not much to them and they’re even color-coded. The blue one is the captain, the red one is the science experts, there’s the gold, hopping, child-like one that contributes nothing to the team, and finally a rainbow colored Mogwai looking guy (voiced by Paul Williams, who I guess didn’t have anything better to do that day) who spends most of the movie digging the spaceship out of the ground. With the help of a dog who is conveniently named Digger, for those not paying attention.

The fuel the aliens are looking for turns out to be, ah, candy. So brother and sister take them trick r’ treating. This leads to the scene you’re probably expecting, of the aliens hiding in plain sight, pretending to be kids in costumes. The really arbitrary plot detail about the mean old woman needing special bugs leads to the two plot threads awkwardly fusing together. That plotline is resolved very quickly. I’m not sure if it was needed at all.

There’s some sap. The kids have a dead mom and discussions about that take up too much time. There’s a literal magical conclusion. Luckily, there’s almost no lame kid-friendly humor or no bad slapstick. “The Last Halloween” is super obscure. I only remember it airing once when it was new. It was heavily advertised at the time, including a promotional comic in Disney Adventure Magazine. I only vaguely remembered something about CGI aliens sucking up candy, and then something about a guy in a barn with a vat of green liquid? It was nice to finally find this and confirm I’m not crazy. It’s not half bad, as far as these things go. [6/10]

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913)
I remember seeing a documentary on classic horror once that said, during the silent era, there was something like fifty different adaptations of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” made. The most famous of which is, no doubt, the 1920 version starring John Berrymore. The 1913 version starring King Baggot is… Not.

At only twenty-seven minutes, the movie condenses an all ready pretty short novel even further. It makes two of the biggest sins a silent film can make: Over-reliance on title cards and major overacting. Major plot elements, such as Hyde committing evil during the night and Jekyll loosing control of his transformation, are brushed over in intertitles. King Baggot overacts wildly, most notable during the transformation scenes. Hyde is portrayed, not through elaborate make-up or subtle acting cues, but by the actor smearing some shoe polish under his eyes, making a maniacal grin, and walking around crouched on his knees. As you can imagine the affect is far from menacing.

The film introduces a love interest, though she doesn’t get much development. Hyde’s acts of evil seem limited to picking a fight in a bar, jumping on random people in the street, and hiding behind trees. Overall, the film isn’t very memorable or impressive. I suspect, if its public domain status hadn’t allowed it on to the Youtubes and such, it would be totally forgotten.

Despite all of this, the film is, quite unintentionally, technically the first Universal Monster movie. It was co-directed and produced by Carl Laemmle, the studio’s founder and father to the son mostly responsible for creating the Universal Monster brand. Therefore its inclusion here and probably the only reason anybody much talks about it anymore. [4/10]

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
“Phantom of the Opera” isn’t a great movie, but it is a great performance. If you think studio meddling is a modern phenomenon, think again. “Phantom” suffered from rewrites, reshoots, and recuts. As many as five different versions were edited and presented, with love triangles and characters added and discarded. Director Rupert Julian was, by all accounts, a hack. Numerous issues are evident in the final film, such as a scene were Raoul incongruously cracks a smile while overhearing Christine’s discussion with the Phantom, or another scene where a lantern is handed from person to person over the distance of a cellar.

But Lon Chaney holds it all together. Gaston Leroux’s Erik the Phantom is an over-the-top villain, a ruthless assassin, a beautiful singer, composer, and musician, an architect, a magician, a trap master, a ventriloquist, and a few other things. Despite these extravagances, what makes Erik fascinating is his love for Christine, a desire to redeem himself. He recognizes how evil and loveless he is but is desperate for redemption. All of this and more is in Chaney’s performance. His body language is authoritative and sinister. A point of the finger, the bend of an elbow, arms crossed, a visible evil laugh conveys numerous emotions. His hands spider into frame from around corners or curtains, the fingers unfurling like a storm cloud. There’s no spoken dialogue, obviously, but his body language causes written lines like “Glut your eyes upon my accursed ugliness!” and “The callers have departed” to drip with malicious venom. While the Phantom is pure evil during numerous scenes, other show him collapsing under despair and a broken heart. The fact that he conveys all of this under the extensive, deforming make-up designs is even more impressive. It’s a phenomenal performance that resonates nearly ninety years after its release.

While Chaney’s performance is obviously the highlight of the film, there’s other reasons to recommend it. The sets and production design of the film is fantastic. The Paris Opera is an iconic setting with a huge amount of detail and character. Erik’s lair is beautifully furished, with Christine’s opulent bed being the high-light. The film makes excellent use of shadows. The Phantom appears in silhouette, making demands of Christine, sneaking away cape over his face, or histrionically announcing the drop of the chandelier. Rushing, frightened ballerinas run through the backstage of the opera, their shadows dancing on the wall. The dead body of Joseph Buquet appears hanged from the ceiling. Raoul and the Parsian creep along the cellars of the opera house, their shadows appearing rat-like and low. There are other unforgettable images. Christine’s first appearance has her literally appearing like an angel, floating out of a heaven stage setting. Christine’s descent into the bowels of the opera house, as guided by Erik, are a descent into Freudian symbolism, the horse prancing down slopes, Christine’s dress floating over the surface of the underground lake as the Phantom guides the gondola. The face of the rat catcher, a floating head encircled in a halo of lamp light, appears out of the darkness of the basement. The Phantom’s abduction of Christine straight off the opera stage has his head popping up out of the orchestra pit. The famous Technicolor version features the gorgeous image of the red-clad Phantom atop the opera house roof, his cape billowing in the wind. My favorite is when the Phantom slinks into the lake, his hands creeping up the side of Raoul’s brother’s boat. The execution and construction might sometimes be awkward but I can’t deny the power of these silent movie images.

The movie certainly isn’t free of the melodrama of the day. Even Chaney befalls to this, when he leans back, exclaiming “My love has forsaken me!” Christine and Raoul’s love story, as in the source material, never really sells. Christine comes off as a fool, pushed around by the men in her life. The film’s clobbered together climax has Erik making a one-sixty. He forgives Christine and accepts of her love for Raoul. However, the audiences of the time demanded a big finale. The Phantom changes his mind, kidnaps Christine, jumps on a carriage, cackling like a serial super-villain, chased by an angry mob. Even this misstep has one incredible moment, when Chaney holds off the crowd for a second by pantomiming a grenade in his hand.

Despite any misgivings, “The Phantom of the Opera” is a classic, without doubt, because of Chaney and its amazing set design. The Image Ultimate Edition is fantastic, including two versions of the film: A tinted, beautifully remastered copy of the 1929 sound reissue which is also watchable with a stunning score from Carl Mays and the more commonly seen 1925 general release version. A generous bundle of extras also includes an informative, entertaining commentary from Scott MacQueen. It was my first silent film and would be a fine introduction to the era for anyone else as well. [8/10]

The Phantom of the Opera: Reconstructions
Included on the Image DVD are also two still frame reconstructions. First, the Los Angeles premier version of the film, the very first cut, which runs a little less then a half an hour. Secondly are stills of the new scenes shot for the San Francisco premier, the second version of the film edited together.

The Los Angeles cut hews a little closer to the source material. Joseph Buquet’s murder is moved back to the beginning of the film, Christine’s daddy issues are maintained, and Raoul’s brother has a slightly larger part. The sequence where Christine visits her father’s grave, the Phantom playing his violin behind her, is included. I imagine that could have been a fabulously atmospheric scene. The portrayal of the Phantom is a little sympathetic. He suffers from heart palpitations throughout and dies at the end quite literally from a broken heart. There also appears to be a little more opera in this version. There’s a fantastic still of Chaney leading Mary Philbin across the catwalk. Seems to me this original cut of the film was superior to the final product we got.

The audience reaction to the first version was very negative. Viewers at the time demanded more romance and melodrama. So the San Francisco cut of the film inserts more extraneous subplots. Yet another suitor for Christine’s affection is introduced, who gets into a duel with Raoul and is even in cahoots with the Phantom at one point. Apparently the film’s run time was bloated up to over a hundred minutes. The only thing from these new scenes to stay in was the new ending, the one seen on film today. Thank goodness all of that stuff was scrapped. If you’re a Phantom Fan, you have to check out these reconstructions, a tantalizing or disheartening peak at what might have been. [7/10]

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