Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 8, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 8

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
“Bride of Frankenstein,” like Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” is one of the most important horror films ever. Like “Psycho,” it has also been fully deconstructed over the years. Film scholars have overturned every rock in the film looking for queer subtext. Dr. Pretorius lures Henry Frankenstein out of the sanctity of his pure, Christian wedding bed with the promise of creating unnatural life. The way he gives Colin Clive small, shoulder touches and, eventually blackmails him into his plot, make him come off like a bitter ex-lover. Some writers interrupt the scenes of the Monster and the Hermit as having a gay subtext, something I’m not sure I buy. On his audio commentary, Scott MacQueen talks a lot about the religious undertones in the film. While there are some unusual Christian images throughout, most notably the slow fadeout on the crucifix during the cabin scene, I think perhaps Mr. MacQueen is reading too much into it. While watching the film this time, I picked up on some nercophilic tendencies. Dr. Pretorius dismisses the grave robbers from the tomb, to spend some private time with the girl’s corpse, an exchange that can be reinterpreted gleefully. Not long after that, the Monster crouches over the open casket of a recently deceased woman, pausing over the face. Of course, the undead Bride herself is presented glamorously, the first time the grotesque and the beautiful were combined in film history, a gorgeous face freshly sewn until a dead skull. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it but the loving dead seems to be right there in the film’s DNA.

Textbook readings of the film aside, “Bride of Frankenstein” is undoubtedly an effective film, a brilliantly constructed piece of work. Franz Waxman’s original score is elegant. During the construction of the Bride, the beating heart provides a military drum beat, driving the action. The Bride and Elizabeth share a motif, a dreamy harp melody. When Elsa Lanchester is revealed in full costume at the end, wedding bells ring out. Though not free of the bombastic clanging typical of the era, it’s a gracefully constructed score. The set design of the film is far more elaborate. We fully see both the exteriors and the interiors of the castle. When we return to the first film’s laboratory tower, we get a loving pan up the stairs, beams looming over head. My favorite set in the film is the desolate graveyard the Monster marches across in search of safe haven. Or even his briefly glimpsed dungeon prison. The chair he’s held down in comes across as a macabre king’s throne. The movie is well shot. Particularly the moment when the Bride is resurrected with lightening. I love the dutch angles on the doctors’ faces, the electric apparati buzzing and glowing around them. By 1935, the moving camera was in full use.

Boris Karloff gives what might be his best performance. There’s such a subtle melancholy to his face, his body language. The early scene of the Monster seeing his reflection in the lake for the first time, enraged by it, characterized the rage that drives him. This is the creature in full rampage mode, crushing all who reject and fear him under foot. But the scenes with the Blind Hermit establish his motives. Like in the first film, he yearns only for nonjudgmental companionship. The grace of Karloff and O.P. Heggie’s performances makes the scene touching. It still gets me misty eyed after countless viewings. The search for a friend is what powers the Monster’s entire arc. By the time he finds Pretorius in the tomb, gazing down on a skull, his search for love has taken on a deadly determination. No wonder, when faced with rejection at the finale, he decides to destroy nearly the whole cast in a fiery explosion.

The rest of the cast is game. Ernest Thesiger as Pretorius casts a long shadow. It’s hard to find a better villain in horror history. No doubt, he is the film’s primary antagonist, driving all the threats in the movie. He delivers the clever dialogue with an effortless gleam in his eyes, both mischievous and sinister. When joking around with his homunculi, the film’s highest moment of camp humor, his idea is obviously jokey. That same tone is deftly subverted into something threatening when whispering to the Monster “Now,” while closing the door, or telling Karl to go out and murder. Between Thesiger and Karloff, it’s easy to loose sight of the rest of the cast. Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein, once lured into the plan, is surprisingly permissive. He doesn’t seem to question just where Dwight Fry’s Carl got that fresh heart. He comes off as an amoral character, perhaps unintentionally. Our new Elizabeth, Valerie Hobson, isn’t given much to do, sadly. Elsa Lanchester, though her contribution doesn’t amount to much screen time, is no doubt influential. Her twitchy body language and goose-like hissing suggests a full conceived character.

The movie is both cruel and clever. The dialogue is frequently amusing, such as Karl and the other grave robber’s exchange. (“This is no life for a murderer.”) Meanwhile, the movie has no problem clipping through its cast. After murdering the daughter in the first film, one of the sequel’s first courses of actions is to kill her parents! That two sided sensibility, so obviously Whale-ian, would characterize countless horror/comedies to come. Every time I watch “Bride of Frankenstein,” I’m fully reminded of its genius. [9/10]

The Bride (1985)
“The Bride” is one of the earlier attempts to sex up classic horror stories with period piece production value glitz and hot young actors, predating “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” if not Frank Langella’s “Dracula.” The movie has a great opening hook: What if the Monster’s Mate survived the explosion at the end of the film? From there, the movie builds itself as something of a feminist fable. Dr. Frankenstein, given the first name Charles for some reason, decides he can build the “perfect woman,” a woman who thinks like a man, is, as he puts it, “equal to a man.” The film has quite a bit of potential with that set-up.

It doesn’t quite live up to it but, still, the movie that follows is definitely worth watching. The story is split in two. One follows the Frankenstein Monster, quickly named Viktor, as he befriends a traveling dwarf and tries to make a career in the circus. The other half of the film revolves around Baron Frankenstein training and teaching the Bride, dubbed Eva, in the ways of polite society, basically a horror version of “My Fair Lady.” Oddly, of the two storylines, the Monster’s quest is actually the more interesting. Paired with Renaldo, the late David Rappaport, the two become immediate friends. Stories of outsiders struggling to make can be prone to smultz, but then again there has never been a more definitive outsider then the Frankenstein Monster. It’s the entire appeal of his character. There are no surprises in the circus drama that follows but the performances of Rappaport and Clancy Brown make up for the potentially trite material. Rappaport makes dialogue as hokey as “Follow your heart and you’ll be fine” actually effecting. Renaldo’s death scene is likely to bring a tear to your eye. Brown’s take on the monster, a mumbling simpleton who slowly learns his own self-worth, never rings hollow even if it’s far from the actor’s best work.

By comparison, the Bride’s journey comes off as more route. The broad comedy of her learning to eat or shrieking, much like Elsa Lanchester, at cats quickly gives way to the girl as a fully self-aware young woman, dancing at balls and gaining the attention of a young count. (Played by young, handsome Cary Elwes. Remember when Cary Elwes was young and handsome?) The most potentially interesting material, the stuff in-between, is glossed over. The relationship with the doctor isn’t delved deeply into. Sting, who has always been fairly adapt at playing villains, gives a decent enough performance but his growing feelings for the girl and his sudden turn to teeth-gnashing villainy at the end are more script problems then actor problems. The inherent sexism in his desire to “build the perfect woman” boils down to him being fine with teaching her but, as soon as she shows any romantic desire for another man, he gets all possessive and rape-y. That a male ends up rescuing her at the end rather undermines the point of the story. The potentially complex material is simplified a bit. It’s no fault of Jennifer Beals, who gives a rather understated, thoughtful performance as the titular woman. The psychic connection between the two creations is never explained and comes off as a plot contrivance.

Even if the movie never lives up to its potential, it does have some striking moments. The nude Bride slinking out of the darkness, clinging to the Baron’s side like a frightened animal. Or, later on, her standing in the rain in an open tomb, questioning her own origins. The opening sequence, with its disembodied body parts twitching in shattered tubes of liquid, suggests a more conventional, just as effective horror film could have been made from this material. The movie wasn’t successful upon release, which is probably why it’s underseen and somewhat underrated today. Frankenstein fans should seek it out, if just to wonder about the excellent film that it could have been, instead of the merely satisfying one it is. [7/10]

High School of the Dead: 
“All Dead’s Attack”
The nuclear apocalypse promised by the last episode is diverted by Japan’s Imperial Military Might. All the nukes are shot out of the sky except for one. (Because those lazy Americans had to go and get themselves zombified.) The last bomb strikes mainland Asia, causing a giant EMP, turning this zombie apocalypse into a Mad Max apocalypse.

The show wraps up another dangling plot thread by reintroducing Sniper Lady, and then lets that plot thread continue to dangle. Evil Teacher’s Bang Bus crashes as a result of the pulse. He survives because the show doesn’t have the common sense to let us watch while zombies tear him limb from limb. Anyway, the living dead storm the mansion. In a moment worthy of Frank Miller, those pussy pacifists get viciously eaten by zombies but not before selling out on their values, ‘cause that’s what pacifist do, amirite? Our heroes go into Last Stand mode. Sword Girl does a barrel roll. Smart Girl’s Hot Mom gets a smidge of characterization (She’s really good at shooting guns, [sarcasm]which makes her completely unique among this cast.[/sarcasm]) before smacking Saya around and basically telling her to suck it up. Smart Girl bides her emotionally unavailable, abusive parents a tear-strewn farewell. The previously unmentioned house mechanic prepares a Hummer that can somehow still run. The gang offers him a ride but he stays behind to fight off the zombies with a wrench. The post-credit scene shows our cast making it to a giant mall. I don’t think the show runners watched “Dawn of the Dead” all the way to the end. The series wraps up with that T.S. Elliot quote, which really isn’t appropriate. Considering a megaton bomb went off in the upper atmosphere, I’d say the world most certainly did end with a bang.

If I wasn’t so disgusted at this point, I’d be almost willing to give this episode a decent review. The series manages to give every character a defining moment in the last episode. Nurse Boobs does something of value while showing off her giant tits one last time. Fat Nerd proves he really is the best shot in the whole world. Smart Girl sorta kinda resolves her issues. Little Girl, who in retrospect added absolutely nothing to the cast, even gets a moment. Everyone else kicks lots of ass. Hey, here’s some panty shots for the road. I’m sure people who actually liked the characters found the ending massively satisfying. As for me? Even some ridiculous action and beautiful animation isn’t enough to forgive this series of its brain-dead, contemptible philosophies. [5/10]

Overall opinion of “High School of the Dead?” Episode five was unintentionally hilarious. Episode six was the one time the show’s constant sex appeal stop being so damn skeezy for a moment and became genuinely erotic. Of course, it only did that by being so in-your-face, the Lizard Brain just overrode everything. Episode seven and eight maybe approached something resembling quality. The show didn’t really do anything new or interesting with the zombie concept. Aside from the occasional bout of gore or tension, it was more of a delusional action fantasy then a horror story. The characters are as thin as can be and the bad episodes were really fucking terrible. I’ll be generous and say the whole show’s final score is a [5/10.] I know there’s a one episode OVA but, nah. I’m not taking JD’s recommendations on anime anymore.

1 comment:

Kernunrex said...

Bride of Frankenstein is a beautiful, insane work of art. One of those rare sequels that surpasses the original. One of those rare films that deeply impresses itself upon our culture and sticks for decades. Who doesn't recognize the reference when a character sports a beehive hairdo with a white stripe up the side?

One of my goals for when I invent a time machine: go back and fund a whole host of Dr. Pretorius spin-off films.