Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 29

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
I wonder what hardcore fans (They must have existed) thought of this film when it was new. If “Jay and Silent Bob Meet Pinhead” or something similar was released today, you know the fandom would erupt into a shit storm. It was certainly a smart decision for Universal. The monsters were long in decline and Bud and Lou weren’t doing so hot at the box office either. Why not combine two flagging franchise and hope for the best?

It helps that “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” is genuinely funny. Costello’s build-in comic persona is perfect for a monster mash. His character is so oblivious of his surroundings that it becomes easy for him to stumble into crazy trouble. While his reactions start with bold cries for help, as the film goes on, they degrade into mumbled, helpless whimpers. Some things remain funny fifty years after the fact. Early highlights include Dracula’s coffin lid slowly opening and closing in reaction to Lou’s face. The film’s most famous scene is probably the sequence of the two guys running around the castle’s basement, flipping through a secret passageway, always just avoiding the creatures. A comparatively subtle gag near the end has the boys pushing a bed against a door, only for it to be revealed that the door actually opens in the opposite direction.

While the huge slapstick gags are the big cut-up moments, the comedians’ banter proves to be just as funny. The movie mines a lot of humor out of two different, beautiful women being interested in Lou. This causes a lot of jealousy on Bud’s behalf and he frequently asks to take one of the girl’s off his friend’s hands. This doesn’t go as well as he hoped. Of course, the root of the gag is that both ladies are only pursuing the fat guy out of ulterior motives. The straight man not initially believing his friend’s paranormal encounters would be drilled into the ground by the sequels, but the premise still provided a lot of sharp dialogue on the first go-around.

The movie stops shy of making fun of the monsters. Bud walks into Talbot’s apartment, unaware that the Wolfman is right behind him, narrowly avoiding getting slashed to death. The movie follows up on that scene during a forest chase where the werewolf is delayed by a tree branches. In the film’s only atmospheric scene, Bud stumbles upon the Frankenstein monster in a dark, foggy dungeon. None of the Monsters are in tip-top shape. Chaney is as sincere as always, trotting out Talbot’s threadbare nerves and suicidal panic for the umpteenth time. Jack Pierce’s handmade make-up gave way to rubber applications which is very noticeable. While I’ve got nothing against Glenn Strange as the monster, he’s easily the stiffest of all the actors to play the part. At least the film gives him more to do then the previous two outings. Bela Lugosi has aged a lot in the seventeen years between this film and the original “Dracula.” A wrinkly vampire is harder to take seriously, especially when his eyes are still so heavily focused on. Lugosi is allowed a little range here, playing a genial host and mad scientist a few times. It doesn’t exactly help that Dracula fits the mad scientist role a little awkwardly.

The monster purist in me can’t help but feel that Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman meet a somewhat unglamorous final fate here, this being their last canonical appearance. Of course, it’s the fate of all once genuinely frightening figures to eventual become the stuff of comedy. “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” is at least still very funny and treats the monsters respectfully. That’s more then some icons get. [7/10]

The Strange Door (1951)
By 1951, unless it was a comedy, Universal was seemingly done with the horror genre. The golden age of monster movies was long behind us. What passed for a horror movie from the studio at that time was something like “The Strange Door,” a period melodrama with minor horror overtones. It’s not a bad film taken on its own merits but I doubt it will satisfy any monster fans.

Based off a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, the film revolves around one of those convoluted revenge quests. An evil duke, played with over-the-top glee by Charles Laughton, has gone to great pains to torture a former friend. The reasoning behind this elaborate revenge? The guy stole the other guy’s girl. Bros before hoes obviously didn’t apply in the 1500s or whenever this is set. To further his revenge, the duke has chosen a hard-drinking, barroom brawling rapscallion to marry the prisoner’s beautiful daughter. The supporting subplots include a castle full of servants, among them Alan Napier, of Hammer horror and “Batman” fame, and a royal underling to Laughton who is not without guilt. While the captured man, the source of all this revenge, feigns insanity for the duke, his faithful manservant, Boris Karloff, is the only person who knows the truth.

“The Strange Door,” as far as swashbuckling action, royal romance, and castle atmosphere goes, does all right. The opening skirmish in the bar has some decent chandelier swinging, flint-lock firing action. The film’s best moment comes when Richard Stapley and Boris Karloff lay the smack down on a collection of castle guards, knocking them down a spiraling staircase. “Tower of London” had the same novelty of seeing the respected gentlemen of horror trading fisticuffs with random stunt men. Karloff’s performance, while not outside of his wheelhouse, is still pretty good. The heavy lids and shadows of his face play guilt and depression so well. The movie’s climax is when it feels the most like a horror film. Karloff, left for dead in a swamp, drags himself through the waters, the fog rolling overhead. The villain has placed our heroes in one of those shrinking, crushing room that only exist in old movies like this. Karloff confronts the villain, pushing him into the gears that run the machine. Surprisingly morbid stuff. The fog and the dark shadows of the dungeon make for good late night horror viewing.

The other strong aspect in “The Strange Door’s” favor is Charles Laughton’s performance as the baddy. Like many of Laughton’s villain roles, he goes way over the top, chewing the scenery with effortless glee. It’s a lot of fun to watch, especially the moment when he laughs hysterically while clenching the bars of a prison cell. Aside from Laughton and Karloff, the rest of the cast is less notable. Sally Forrest is beautiful as the love interest but the movie asks us to believe that two people who are designed never to fall in love actually fall in love with each other. None of the romantic scenes work. Generally, far too much of “The Strange Door” is composed of old British people talking in rooms. It’s ultimately not a bad film, with nice sets, okay atmosphere, and some fun performances. But it’s not much of a horror film. [6/10]

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001)
Intentionally making a bad movie seems counterproductive. There have been a number of films over the years that spoof, make fun of, and play off of the low-budget sci-fi B-pictures of the fifties. Some are inspired, some are tedious. “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,” which was made with the same budgets Ed Wood had minus inflation, falls on the entertaining side of that equitation, at least for me anyway.

The Ed Wood comparison is apt. Wood is notorious for his miniscule budgets and floppy, incoherent scripts. What actually makes his films preserve aren’t that we can laugh at their lousy production values and shitty scripts. Lots of movies nobody care about have that. What makes his films memorable was Wood’s ear for surreal, oddly quotable dialogue. “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” has a fantastic understanding of that. It’s fair to say the movie’s primary comedic device is the oddball, awkward, frequently hilarious dialogue. “Sometimes my wife forgets she is not a space alien.” “I’ve seen bears do things… Things a bear wouldn’t even do.” “Even as a child, I was always hated by skeletons.” And on and on. This is one of those films were visiting its IMDb quote page before watching it will ruin the fun. (But, in all likelihood, you probably will want to visit that page afterwards.) Unlike say, “Alien Trespass,” the filmmakers also had a grip on the pacing, style, and tone of those fifties B-movies, right down to lag at the end of the second act. The camera hangs onto scenes just a second longer then it should. Music cues cut wildly between scenes. Handheld close-ups are used whenever the monster is about. Clearly this was made by fans. The filmmakers weren’t just making fun of unconvincing special effects or visible wires. (Though it does that a few times as well.) They were trying to replicate the off-kilter tone of the time period and genre. The plot wildly masses together story elements from “It Came From Outer Space,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Invaders from Mars,” “The Blob,” “I Married a Monster from Outer Space,” “Plan 9,” in actuality some of the best films of the era. The score is composed solely of library music.

The movie is generally just fun. In a post-“Avatar” world, naming phlebotinum “Atmospherium” really doesn’t sound any worse then “Unobtainium.” The cast is amazingly game. Andrew Parks and Susan McConnel as the alien couple go for broke as far as physical comedy go. Their uniformly stiff posture and unblinking gazes never disguise for a minute that they are aliens, which is obviously the joke. I especially love how they “bend themselves in half” whenever sitting. Brian Howe as the mad scientist is especially hilarious, with his love-hate relationship with the Lost Skeleton. Jennifer Blaire, providing some decent eye-candy in a skintight body suit, has a lot of fun as Animala, carrying an interesting body language and pronouncing her lines in just an unusual enough way. The whole cast carries the film astonishingly well. The best character isn’t actually played by an actor. I love the Lost Skeleton. His booming psychic voice makes some of the simplest lines hilarious. “I sleep now!” There’s a deadpan to the monotone that makes the more absurd moments even funnier, most notably his passive-aggressive relationship with the mad doctor that brings him to life. (“Stop that giggling. It makes me uncomfortable.”)

Not all the gags work. The scene where numerous characters are giving Betty the housewife psychic suggestions goes on too long. Generally, the repeated gag of people laughing until they stop is repeated one time too many. The scenes of Betty and Paul sharing lunch with the aliens inside their ship is also a victim of the film’s intentionally static pacing. Still, “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” squeezes enough hearty laughs into its short run time to certainly make it worth your while. Always agree. [7/10]

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