Sunday, September 27, 2015

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Director: Rowland V. Lee                                 Writer: Willis Cooper
Film Score: Frank Skinner                               Cinematography: George Robinson
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill

While it’s much more convenient to date Universal’s second great horror cycle from the birth of their wholly original monster, Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man, the first of their highly successful vehicles produced during World War Two, the reality is the return to major horror film production began two years earlier with the third installment of their Frankenstein series, Son of Frankenstein. For some modern audiences it may be difficult to overcome the associations with Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, as he used many of the set pieces of this film for his comedy send up. But despite a clear separation from the early work at the studio in terms of quality, and some poor choices in nearly every aspect of the filmmaking, the presence of Lugosi and Atwill--and to a lesser extent Karloff and Rathbone--raise the quality of this film above much of what would come later in the monster rally films of the next decade. The first thing one notices here is the overt Expressionism of the film, though artificially so, and therefore the original Frankenstein by James Whale remains the most genuinely expressionistic of all the series. And while that aspect of the set design seems forced most of the time, Jack Otterson combined it with a sort of minimalist approach that is impressive in its own right and remains one of the most memorable aspects of the production.

The film begins with a shot of Frankenstein’s castle, boarded up and guarded, with Bela Lugosi as Ygor peaking out from a broken window above the gate. Meanwhile the leaders of the town argue amongst themselves about the return of Frankenstein’s son, Basil Rathbone, and what that might mean for them. The chief constable, Lionel Atwill, is against it. As Rathbone and his wife, Josephine Hutchinson, arrive by train with their small son, Donnie Dunagan, Rathbone recounts the wrongs done to his father by the villagers, including the fact that most people refer to the monster as Frankenstein. After a chilly reception by the villagers at the train station, Atwill meets Rathbone at his home and tells him of having his arm ripped out by the monster, as well as of the six unexplained deaths that occurred since the death of Rathbone’s father. Visiting the ruins of the laboratory the next morning Rathbone meets Lugosi, who leads him to a hidden chamber containing Karloff as the monster. Rathbone agrees to bring him back to life, but when the village senses what’s going on they bring in Lugosi for questioning. Of course, he tells them nothing. Rathbone is enchanted with the idea of continuing his father’s work. Things get complicated, however, when on restoring the monster’s life Rathbone discovers that Karloff is loyal only to Lugosi who wants to use the monster for revenge rather than scientific study.

This was Karloff’s third portrayal of the monster and it is vastly inferior to the first two with James Whale. Karloff had been unhappy with the fact that the monster had talked in the second film, Bride of Frankenstein, and so he wielded his clout on this picture and kept him mute. He was obviously trying to get back to his original interpretation, but unfortunately it simply began the trend of the grunting behemoth that would inform the portrayal of the monster right through the Hammer years and into public consciousness forever. In addition, his face is full and fleshed out and his costume has him bulked out like a hulking giant rather than the cadaverous monster of the original. Bela Lugosi was justifiably proud of his role as Ygor, and though it doesn’t necessarily hold up today, it was enough to have his part resurrected for the next film in the series, Ghost of Frankenstein with Lon Chaney Jr. as the monster. Lionel Atwill is the real star of the show, and is a tremendous onscreen presence as the inspector who curries favor with Rathbone in order to stay close to him and discover the truth. Rathbone is tremendous at the beginning of the film, but his near mental breakdown at the end strains credulity as he comes unglued while attempting to keep the secret from Atwill. American Josephine Hutchinson is rather forgettable as Rathbone’s wife, though the young Donnie Dunagan does a decent job as their son.

At this point in his career Rowland V. Lee was known primarily for his work on costume dramas and swashbucklers, and continued with those after this film until his retirement at the end of the war. He has some nice directorial touches using long shots to great effect in the Expressionist castle, and nice angles for his close ups shooting primarily from just below horizontal, as well as some interesting shots in the rather minimalist laboratory. The film score was the first for the newly hired Frank Skinner who, along with Hans Salter, would score many of the important films from the second horror cycle at Universal. Some of the cues would be heard later in The Wolf Man, which the two composers worked on together, as well as being recycled endlessly by the studio for the next decade on more than just the monster films. The revival of the series was a hit by any measure, and was responsible for putting Universal in the black and inspiring the studio to invest in more horror films. One aspect of the film that differs from those that would come after it is the relatively lengthy running time of almost one hundred minutes, almost a half hour longer than most of Universal’s later horror films. Son of Frankenstein has nowhere near the humor and pathos of James Whale’s films, but it retains a charm all its own and has some terrific performances by its principal cast.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Blacula (1972)

Director: William Crain                                     Writers: Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig
Film Score: Gene Page                                   Cinematography: John M. Stephens
Starring: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas and Gordon Pinsent

From the first moment of Blacula there is a sense of black pride that pervades the screen in the same way that gave all films in the blaxploitation genre their purpose. In fact, William Marshall, who would play the lead character, insisted on changes to the screenplay to reflect that pride. The name of his character in the original screenplay was Andrew Brown, but Marshall wanted him to be African and the prologue was written to show his origins, giving him the name Mamuwaldi as well as the slavery-like way in which he was captured and turned into a vampire. Director William Crain was primarily a television director and was able to call upon a host of talented black television actors to fill his cast. The overall problem with the film, of course, is the low budget sets and production values. The sound, in particular, is distant and difficult to hear in places, which is a major distraction. The other aspect of the film that is dated is the nightclub singing. Unlike the music composed for Shaft by Isaac Hayes, Gordon Parks was primarily an arranger and therefore the Blacula soundtrack suffers in comparison though still adhering to the same soul music formula rather than traditional classical music conventions of traditional horror films.

The story opens in 1780--though the title card was supposed to read 1815--with William Marshall and Vonetta McGee visiting the castle of Dracula, Charles Macauley, in an attempt to make inroads into Europe for African tribal-states to be recognized by the Old World as independent nations, thereby ending the slave trade. But when Marshall insults Dracula after the vampire says he would like to own his wife, he turns Marshall into a vampire and locks him in a coffin to suffer while McGee perishes, helpless on the other side of the box. From there, Gene Page’s soulful opening theme and the title graphics bring the setting up to the present, with an inter-racial gay couple purchasing antiques at Dracula’s castle to send back to Los Angeles, including Blacula’s coffin. For the first time in two centuries, Marshall is released from his coffin and feasts on their blood before killing them. Then, in something out of The Mummy, Marshall sees McGee at the funeral home. She is the very image of his late wife and he knows he must get her back. At the same time police detective Thalmus Rasulala is investigating the strange deaths, and believes there is a vampire loose in the city. His girlfriend, Denise Nicholas, is McGee’s sister and the three of them are at a club when Marshall comes in looking for her. It doesn’t take long before he has her in his spell with plans to make her his reincarnated bride.

Initially Rasulala thinks he’s after one villain, but in this vampire world the mere fact that someone is bitten and dies turns them into a vampire themselves, and allows their numbers to increase geometrically. As corny as William Marshall might look on the posters, he makes for an imposing vampire, with a tall stature that dominates the screen and a deep, commanding voice like James Earl Jones. But all of the principals are good. Denise Nicholas and Thalmus Rasulala make a great couple, and they are very convincing in their roles. Gordon Pinsent is also solid as the police captain in charge of the case. The only other actor of note is Elisha Cook Jr. who makes an appearance in a small cameo as a hook-handed undertaker. The low mark in the acting is Vonetta McGee in the double role of Tina and Blacula’s wife. She doesn’t appear very comfortable in front of the camera and delivers her lines rather stiffly. To be fair, the pedestrian screenplay does nothing to provide any kind of genuine suspense, or use the horror tropes to any great effect. So, while the performers live up to their part, they are fighting a losing battle to make the film rise above its low-budget pedigree. What the film does instead is focus on the romantic angle of the vampire, and supports the idea of blacks as virile and sexual people.

There are some nice scares in the film, though, especially in the later half when the vampires are on the loose. Director William Crane uses everything from slow motion to special lighting and makeup to give those moments as much impact as he can. He even makes use of special effects animation to transform Marshall into a bat in a couple of place. The use of special effects throughout the film would have added a lot, but the money just wasn’t there. And to make matters worse, the ending is a real anticlimax, failing to deliver on the early promise in the film. It has to be acknowledged, though, that these films were never meant to be great cinema. They were small, independent films that relied on the uniqueness of a mostly black cast to bring in an audience, and in this sense it fulfilled its function admirably. Though the reviews of the film were decidedly mixed, it earned over a million dollars on its first run and was one of the top-grossing films of the year. This also served to reaffirm the market for such films, which lead to the production of the sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream the following year. Ultimately, this is the lens that the film needs to be viewed through to avoid disappointment, and when viewed historically Blacula can be a rewarding cinematic experience.