Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 11

I apologize for the lack of updates over the last few days. There have been local internet outtages in my area starting Thursday night. I have been watching stuff and writing, I've just got some catch-up to do.

The Dummy (1982)
This is a great example of what a horror short can accomplished. At only seven and a half minutes, the premise is as simple as can be: Woman alone in a house, menaced by an evil ventriloquist dummy. Killer dummies, dolls, and toys are a tricky horror trope. While the concept plays on our innate distrust of things that appear to be alive but aren’t, if one goes too far, it can also be comical. “The Dummy” plays the balance just right. Through wholly lo-fi means the dummy is brought to life, almost certainly through someone moving the doll around off-screen. This gives the film a strange verisimilitude though, almost as if it’s low budget effects somehow make it seem more probable. The dummy’s mouth clopping mechanically while covered in blood is still pretty creepy.

A surprising amount of genuine suspense is generated in the brief run time. Like all the best horror villains, the dummy is persistent, pushing a butcher knife under a locked door, cornering our heroine and slicing her legs up. The spooky sound design and droning electronic score doubtlessly help the tension build. Frequently shown as filler on premium cable channels and USA Saturday Nightmares, where I was exposed to it, I’m certain this film traumatized a whole generation of horror fans. Or, at the very least, confirmed that dummies are fucking creepy. [7.5/10]

Son of Frankenstein (1939)
From a visual presentation, “Son of Frankenstein” is fantastic. It features some of the best sets of the series. All the buildings in the village have weird sloping roofs. The boxes of the judge’s house loom high over the floor. Grotesque stone gargoyles framed either side of the Frankenstein dining room, glaring down on the family as they eat. The cave leading into the laboratory has a hallucinatory rocky ceiling. A giant circular opening leads up into the lab, the bubbling sulfur pit casting an eerie glow over all the electronics. The architecture casts odd shadows on the wall. While the film mostly builds atmosphere with these elements, it has at least one scene of good old fashion foggy nights, a moment of the Monster wandering through the countryside. The film is well-shot. I love the Monster’s reveal, which involves a slow pull back, the body on a slab before Basil Rathbone and Ygor. In another scene, the Monster is raised up on the surgical table, the soles of his boots right in the viewer’s face.

Often regarded as the last “good” Frankenstein movie, there are aspect of “Son” that are utterly fascinating. Ygor watching over the sleeping child, peering in through a secret window in the wall, is frankly nightmarish. The son of Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein (Here called Heinrich, first of many continuity gaffs), Wolf returns with his family to the accessorial home. He too is a man of science and is determined to reclaim his father’s legacy as one of good. In a particularly effective scene, Wolf discovers a vandal has written on his father’s tomb “Maker of Monsters.” Once he has decided to resurrect the creature, he carves “Maker of MEN” over the graffiti. Wolf is under constant security from the villagers and his attempts to hide his obvious guilt leads to him being highly nervous throughout. In a montage, the Monster is studied from every scientific angle and we realize just how truly inhuman he is. Basil Rathbone supposedly didn’t want to do the film but I actually like his performance quite a bit. His constant anxiety could be seen as a little over the top but I think it works. It adds a certainly energy to the film.

This was the last time Karloff played the Monster, fearing the character had been reduced to a mindless killing machine. His concerns were valid. As far as emotional depth goes, the creature isn’t given much to work with. Mostly he lumbers about, rather stiffly, doing Ygor’s work. The Monster kills without remorse and doesn’t seem much interested in anything else. Even then, Karloff manages to sneak in a moment or two. He slowly sneaks up on Wolf, places a hand on his shoulder. The doctor faces the Monster, horrified, as the creature’s hands slowly work around his throat. However, Karloff steps back, rubs his head, confused. The Monster is still disgusted with his reflection and the late scenes with the little boy recall the flower girl sequence from the original. Still, as a hardcore nerd committed to fan-wankery, you can justify this behavior. He’s been blown up and struck by lightening. His mind is bound to be scrambled. Even from a character development angle, it can work. In the forty-some years of his existence, the Monster has had to live with almost total rejection and fear. Reacting to any other life with murderous rage shouldn’t be unexpected. His anguished wails over Ygor’s death are probably the closest Karloff is allowed to get to the earlier film’s diversity. I can’t blame Boris for dropping out after this one. And, for the record, I like the shag jacket.

Ygor is an odd character. He’s the primary villain in the film. Up until the very end, the Monster is a moving plot device, manipulated by the madman. I love the idea of a man who survived a hanging, a permanent knot in his neck. Lugosi, growling his lines in broken English, certainly gives a very different performance then his Dracula. Lionel Atwill’s Inspector Krogh is another famous contribution to the Frankenstein legacy. Atwill’s monologue about how he lost his arm is deeply effective. He doesn’t overact with the wooden arm. Honestly, it’s cool and sets up an awesome moment at the end. I personally love that the Monster has become something of a (pre)urban legend, something whispered about, more myth then actuality at this point.

I honestly like “Son of Frankenstein” a lot. It pales helplessly compared to the first two films but, as a sequel, it follows up the themes in logical ways while providing a few cool addition of its own. “Young Frankenstein” owes way more to this movie then most realize. [7.5/10]

Tower of London (1939)
Upon first viewing, I didn’t warm up to “Tower of London” much. The story of 15th century political intrigue wasn’t exactly what I was looking for when popping in a quote-unquote Universal Horror movie. This is, after all, the same historical material that inspired Shakesphere’s “Richard III” and modern soap opera “The Tudors.” Rewatching this movie tonight, I discovered, surprise surprise, it is a horror movie, at least parts of it anyway.

Granted, a large portion of the film revolves around royal politics. There’s lots of talks of familial relations, of marrying the right people, of who’s next in line to the throne. As generally accepted by fiction, but not necessarily history, Richard III murdered his way up the royal line, all the way to the king’s throne. In tradition with Shakesphere, Basil Rathbone’s portray of Richard includes a hunchback. After the exile of Henry Tudor and the death of his mingling brother Edward, the film shows Richard’s inclinations for murderous conspiracies kick in.

And that’s were the film’s horror elements come from. The film invents the character of Mord, a royal executioner with a clubfoot, childhood friend of Richard, played by Karloff. Mord is one of Karloff’s most sadistically evil characters. Karloff’s head is shaved and his all ready imposing frame is further padded out, making him look especially intimidating. This is a man who gleefully grinds an axe before the gallows, has no qualms about stabbing an old man while he prays. Interestingly enough, Mord is also responsible for spreading rumors, gossip that slowly erodes at the public’s trust of Prince Edward V and his brother. Richard’s manipulation of the boys takes up a large portion of the film’s middle section. The moment Rathbone first considers murdering the children even causes Karloff’s totally immoral character to pause for a second. The scene where the boy princes are killed has got to be one of the darkest moments in Post-Code thirties cinema.

This is largely an actor’s film. Rathbone gives an interesting performance. Richard III is never more then a calculating villain. Even his generous public area or the scenes with the woman he plans on marrying are never more then mechanical moves towards power. It’s still a very good performance, strictly because Rathbone imbues every line and turn with a sinister attitude. Among the supporting cast is a very young Vincent Price as Duke George, played here as a foppish alcoholic. The best scene in the movie is the drink-off, like a duel but with booze, between Rathbone and Price. Another example of two great actors playing it over the top against one another. There’s some dark comedy sprinkled throughout too, most of it coming from Mord’s causal brutality, such as opening a iron maiden and letting a body fall out as calmly as you and I take the garbage out.

The horror content peaks during the scene where a prisoner of the Tower is tortured for information. Whipping, hot irons, the rack, all of it displayed in as much graphic detail as 1939 would allow. (Which might be more then you’d think.) Could the roots of post-millennial torture horror be in this little seen period drama? Probably not, but it’s fun to think so. The story climaxes with a huge battle scene, which is fine but marks the end of the horror elements. Rathbone is given a surprisingly lackluster death scene but Karloff’s dramatic dive off a cliff makes up for it. After 90 minutes of brutality and darkness, the overly up-beating ending is a real tone breaker. “Tower of London” honestly isn’t pure horror but, every time I see the film, I’m surprise at how closely it skirts up against the genre. [7/10]

The Contraption (1977)
Another stalwart feature on Saturday Nightmares, this seven minute short film stars Richard O’Brien, of “Rocky Horror” fame, as a man building… Something. I honestly can’t talk about it much without spoiling it. I’ll just say the film is all about the build-up to the climatic visual punch line and it does so fantastic.

As for the presentation, the short is very well shot. In close angles, we see the man working with his tools. A saw rushed into our eyes, wires and steel rods assembled from odd angles. The construction is intentionally show so that we aren’t entirely sure what we’re looking at. Like “The Dummy,” this short’s success rides a great deal on its excellent sound design. In the heavily shadow room, all we here is a distant leaky pipe and the clanking and grinding of the man at work. This is another fantastic short and it’s great that the internet and streaming video sites make it so easy now to revisit this types of film, stuff we’d otherwise would never see again. [7/10]

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