Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 17

Hold That Ghost (1941)
“Hold That Ghost” is frequently called a precursor to the Abbott and Costello Meet the Monster series. And it is, sort of. But, at the same time, every comedy duo of the era made an old dark house comedy. The clichés and traditions of that genre were as ingrained in the culture in the 40s and 30s as the rules of the slasher film are to today’s world. So parodying them was natural. Anyway, the point: Is “Hold That Ghost” funny?

Yes. It’s very funny, in spots actually. The film takes some time getting to the not-quite-haunted house. Abbott and Costello are waiters in a fancy night club, featuring plenty of screen time for dancer/singer Ted Lewis and the Andrews Sisters. (And Lewis doing a rendition of “Me and My Shadow,” with a black guy dancing behind him. Ouch.) Cue skits involving grouchy customers and food orders, cummerbunds, and tumbling over dishes. The two quickly get fired, get work at a gas station, and, through some typically contrived circumstances, end up by a dying gangster’s side. Gee whiz, turns out that the gangster’s will gives his fortune and creepy old mansion to the people who just happen to be next to him when he dies. In the old dark house tradition, a group of other characters wind up at the dusty mansion with our bumbling duo. There’s a vitamins obsessed young scientist, a spunky young radio actress, and soon-to-be-scream-queen Evelyn Ankers as a woman who appears to be going blind. Hijinks, many of them involving people dressed as ghost, secret passageways, and dusty rooms, ensue.

Since pretty much all of my exposure to Bud and Lou comes from their later, monster mash flicks, it’s interesting to see how different their style is earlier in their careers. Abbott is solely a straight man. Aside from smacking Lou around a few times, he doesn’t have much back-and-forth between his stouter buddy. Some notable gags include a sudden dance sequence between Costello and Joan Davis, which quickly falls apart into slipping around in puddles, and a bedroom that transforms into a casino through a secret switch. Naturally, nobody believes Costello when he sees this because it changes back just in time. Another stand-out skit includes a pair of moving candles and, once again, no body believing Lou when he sees them moving. The movie seems to parody “Cat and the Canary,” perhaps, when a monster-claw hand reaches out through a curtain above a sleeping Lou. I also like the guy in the ghost sheet sneaking into beds. The story is almost total nonsense and all the horror/supernatural elements end up being unimportant. “Hold That Ghost” isn’t exactly a comedy classic and I don’t think he had much to down with the later monster pictures. But it is still fairly amusing and got several big laughs out of me. [7/10]

Put some pants on him.  His wolf dork will show
The Wolf Man (1941)
“The Wolf Man” is an actor’s film, a sophisticated affair. During a period when the studio was relegating horror to B-picture status, it’s a surprisingly classy film. Lon Chaney Jr. received considerable critical acclaim for his star-making role in “Of Mice and Men” while Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, and Maria Ouspenskaya were all Oscar-nominated actors. George Waggner’s direction is surprisingly atmospheric and classy, considering his previous efforts. (Among them the previously reviewed “Man Made Monster” and “Horror Island.”) The musical score was widely considered ground-breaking and influential. All of these factors contribute to making “The Wolf Man” a classic. I personally believe no factor was more important then Curt Siodmak’s screenplay.

Like all of the best horror films, there’s a level of subtext and themes that resonate deeply. Larry Talbot is one of the most human protagonist out of all the Universal films. He comes back to his home town for the first time in years. I’m not sure if this was intentional but, despite being born in the Welsh village the film is set in, Talbot has spent so much time in America there’s no sign of an accent at all. It’s tempting to say the relationship between Larry and his father is the emotional backbone of the film. Any one who has had a tense relationship with their own father can find a lot to relate to here. Sir John and Larry shake hands, talk tensely, desperately trying to forge some kind of bond through years of separation and estrangement. As the story and their relationship evolve, they come close to something resembling a proper father/son connection. The scene were Sir John decides to tie Chaney down in a chair seems to be the father’s own, strangled way to reach out to his son, whom he sees as a very sick individual. Still, the finale, when father beats his own son to death, can’t help but be read in a tragic text. Sir John is so unable to connect to his own son, he becomes a wolf in his father’s eyes. Oddly, compared to his reaching out but still cold father, Maleva the gypsy cuts a clearly maternal figure. She seems much more caring and nurturing then his actual parent.

What really struck me about the film upon this watching was the romantic subplot. The writing and acting here rises above the genre and time period, were the love interest were usually little more then shrieking victims. Chaney and Evelyn Ackers have real chemistry together. She’s a small town girl, working in a business owned by her father. You get the impression she hasn’t travel much outside of her home town. Meanwhile, Larry Talbot is an exciting man who has traveled the world. He must seem highly exotic to Gwen. What makes the relationship truly unusual for the time period is that Gwen is a kept woman. She’s engaged to Frank Andrews, a detective and ruggedly handsome traditional leading man. Andrews is a good man and never shows any jealousy or resentment towards Talbot, something improved upon from the original script. But Gwen has difficult resisting Larry’s charms. The two even kiss, quite passionately. Like the Russian Wurdulac, the Wolf Man is compelled to seek out and kill the person he loves the most. It’s inevitable that the creature turns his claws towards the lovely maiden. The genuine chemistry Chaney and Ackers share makes up for the somewhat unseemly fact that Larry starts the relationship as a peeping tom.

After years of absence, the heavy English Fog makes a strong comeback with this film. The scenes of the Wolf Man roaming the moors, stalking a grave digger, are so singularly atmospheric. The forest is dark and deep, indeed. The town the film is set in is very much alive. The townspeople quickly ostrasize Larry, realizing he’s a bad omen. When he enters a church during the grave digger’s funeral, the entire congregation turns to stare at him. In another surprising scene, the mother of the first werewolf’s victim blame Gwen for her daughter’s death. After watching “The House of Seven Gable” so recently, you can’t help but feel there’s something Hawthorne-ian about this location. Rumors and guilt are certainly enough to bring a person’s reputation down.

Chaney’s performance truly is fantastic. In the first script draft, the film was more of a psychological horror story. Like the later “Cat People,” it was kept deliberately ambiguous wither Larry actually turned into a wolf or just thought he was a wolf. The movie actually spends a lot of time talking about psychology, self-hypnotism, and mass hysteria. While all of this adds depth and verisimilitude to the film’s world, what really holds it together is Lon Chaney. So care-free, chummy, and relaxed at first, Larry Talbot is shaken apart by guilt and doubt following his transformation. It’s easy to imagine that suppressed guilt is the real monster of the movie. Though the iconic make-up helps a lot, Chaney plays the Wolf Man as a totally distinct character, a feral, striking animal. His body language says a lot.

The musical score is very good and seems to intentionally invoke a wolf’s howling. (In addition to featuring a slight musical motif rather reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s “Batman” theme that has cropped up in several of these studio films.) On his audio commentary, Tim Weaver spends a lot of time deconstructing the film’s various continuity flaws and plot holes. Some of them you can’t help but notice as well, like Larry changing into a work shirt before becoming a wolf-man. However, the prestige cast and powerful story makes the film a true classic. It’s not wonder why the Wolf Man quickly ascended to the same echelon of horror icons like Frankenstein and Dracula, in addition to mostly forming the popular conception of the werewolf. [9/10]

The Wolfman (2010)
When I first saw the remake of “The Wolfman,” I was frustrated. Many of the sequences were fantastic. Everyone knew the movie went through a troubled production. While I admired many of the things it did, a much better film obviously existed in the editing room at some point. So I was looking forward to Joe Johnston’s extended director’s cut… Though only enough to wait until the DVD hit the five dollar bin.

The director’s cut is better, though barely. Over ten minutes are inserted. It expands on Lawrence Talbot and his relationship with Gwen. Max Von Sydow’s excised sequence, which introduces the famous silver cane, is reinserted. The new scenes add a half an hour to the first act, moving the first transformation to almost an hour in. After that, the film plays more or less the same.

The edit doesn’t fix the major problems. The jump-scares are maintained, as is the ramping. The over-the-top fantasy scenes in the asylum are even more protracted. The most incredulous element, the father-son subplot, is still here. The werewolf kung-fu fight, against the grain of the film’s gothic Victorian atmosphere, is just as goofy. Sure, that expands on the daddy issues present in the original but the whole thing is handed in an obvious, ham-handed fashion. It weakens the entire film. You could cut the entire subplot without changing the story much at all. (These changes should have taken place during the scripting stage.)

Benicio del Toro should’ve been great, given how animalistic he can be while having the same sad sack quality Chaney had. It’s such a gruff, unsatisfying performance. Del Toro is… Off. Anthony Hopkins does his scenery chewing villain shtick. It’s horribly out of place and gets worse as it goes on. Emily Blunt does all right while Hugo Weaving is the only one that really acts here. He has a lot of fun.

I maintain there are some awesome sequences. Larry Talbot’s werewolf coming out is great and features a wonderful decapitation but it’s not as good as the rampage through London, which starts with a fantastically gory asylum tear-up. It’s a shame so many of the awesome moments are undermined by half-baked CGI. I don’t like the bounding wolfman and there’s too much computerized playing around. Rick Baker’s practical make-up is extremely good and rightfully won an Oscar but we don’t get to see a lot of it. The CGI bear and deer are inexcusably bad. If nothing else, the film gets the foggy English atmosphere down successfully.

It’s not the best remake of “The Wolf Man” we could have gotten. Moving the story into the Victorian era was smart but I object to lessening the role of the gypsies and Maleva. I object to removing the pentagram and other mythological elements. I think the romance in the original was more entertaining. Overall the remake is too somber. It doesn’t work all the way and, on second viewing, the flaws start to overshadow the good moments. [6/10]

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