Sunday, October 21, 2018

Son of Frankenstein (1939) review


Basil Rathbone (Baron Wolf von Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Bela Lugosi (Ygor), Lionel Atwill (Inspector Krogh), Josephine Hutchinson (Elsa von Frankenstein), Donnie Dunagan (Peter von Frankenstein)

Directed by Rowland V. Lee

The Short Version: Beautifully shot sequel in the ongoing FRANKENSTEIN series from Universal is arguably the most lavish and best acted of the series. Overflowing with a baroque style echoing the Expressionist cinema of Germany, it's as much a painting come to life as it is the third resurrection of the monster. Rathbone's Frankenstein and Lugosi's crazed crooked-necked hunchback vie for the top spot while Karloff's creature feels like an incidental character. For fans of Uni-Horror, it's a top class fright flick pairing two genre heavyweights and production values to match.

Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein, the son of Henry Frankenstein, moves his family from America to his father's castle in Europe--much to the disdain of the local villagers who haven't forgotten the nightmare wrought by Frankenstein's hellish experiments. Living below the castle in the family crypt is Ygor, the late patriarch's former assistant who miraculously survived a hanging after the court sentenced him to die. Wolf also finds his father's lumbering, murderous creation has likewise survived, but remains comatose. Desiring revenge on the eight jurors that sent him to hang, Ygor convinces the young Frankenstein to revive the monster; unaware that the demented hunchback wishes to use the Monster to kill those who've wronged him.

Traditionally, sequels are lesser affairs compared to the films that beget them. In regards to 1931s FRANKENSTEIN, this is not the case; the films get better with each succeeding entry--reaching an artistic zenith rarely seen in a 'part 3'. It would seem extremely difficult to top--much less match--Whale's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), but director Lee achieved just that with this second, even more expensive sequel. After SON, things did begin to slouch comfortably into 'B' movie territory. 

After a successful re-release of some of their top horror titles, Universal decided to revive their Franken-franchise for a third go-round; bringing back some old faces and attaching some new ones. Universal wanted Peter Lorre in the title role, but he turned it down--reportedly because he had tired of villainous roles. However, incoming director Rowland V. Lee preferred Basil Rathbone--whom he'd worked with previously. In a surprising turn--refreshing that it is--the role of the son as played by Basil isn't the madman with the God complex as portrayed by Colin Clive in the previous two films.

Rathbone does flirt with his father's scientific obsession although he never descends into madness over it. His eventual scientific pursuits aren't for personal gain, but to bring legitimacy to his father's work. Colin Clive's Frankenstein wore his insanity like a tailored suit. His son, on the other hand, is a stubborn man seduced into picking up where his father left off; embarking on an ill-advised mission to bring some respectability to the family name; this upon discovering his father's creature is still alive--and quite immortal--if in a comatose state after an accident.

Another character in the film is also ambitious, if for a darker, insidious purpose...

Bela Lugosi's raucous, show-stealing turn as Ygor, the elder Frankenstein's broken-necked assistant, is the very definition of deranged. Ygor takes advantage of Frankenstein's naivete for his own ends. Wolf wishes to redeem his father's work while Ygor secretly wishes to use the Monster as an instrument of revenge against the eight jurors that hanged him. Once Wolf makes the Monster well again, Ygor controls him with a flute-like instrument--sending the creature out into the night to kill. The true monster of the film, Ygor is calculatingly evil. Frankenstein was misguided; Ygor is an outright murderer.

Arguably Lugosi's best performance, he would reprise the part of Ygor in the next sequel, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942). The actor would instill the same ferocity into his role even if the budget and production values can't measure up. On a related note, the character of 'Igor' is often associated with FRANKENSTEIN (1931) despite that film's unhinged hunchback bearing the name of Fritz (as played to perfection by Dwight Frye). SON is the first movie to utilize such a character bearing that name.

Boris Karloff underneath Jack Pierce's incredible makeup is synonymous with both the FRANKENSTEIN series and the character of the Monster in general. He returns for the third and last time as the mad scientist's stitched-together experiment. Sadly, he's not on-camera that much; and what footage there is, it's basically a run-through of his reactions from the previous entries with little of the pathos of the previous two films. Karloff's noted tiring of the role would mirror that of Christopher Lee's disdain for donning the Dracula cape "just one more time" in a series of Hammer sequels that gave him little to do but snarl at the camera.

Master monster maker Jack Pierce's Franken-appliance is as good as before, but it's his Ygor makeup that both repulses and horrifies. With his bent, broken neck, rotted teeth and wild eyes, you can almost smell the stench of death oozing from Lugosi's lips whenever he speaks his lines. Without the astonishing makeup of Jack Pierce, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN--and a great many other Uni-horrors--wouldn't be the influential classics they remain seventy years later. 

He wasn't as venerable as Karloff and Lugosi, but Lionel Atwill was equally adept in horror film roles having done his fair share of them in the 1930s and 1940s. Among the notable titles on his resume include DOCTOR X (1932), THE MYSTERY IN THE WAX MUSEUM (1932), MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933), MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935), MAN-MADE MONSTER (1941), THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942), FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945).

Well known for portraying villains (made even more pronounced by his deep voice), Atwill excelled in good guy roles like SON's Inspector Krogh--the one=armed policeman who lost his arm to the Monster as a young boy. The part of Krogh was among the spoofery found in Mel Brooks's classic comedy YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974).

Rowland V. Lee directed both Basil and Boris again in the same year's TOWER OF LONDON--a heavily horror tinted historical drama about Richard III. Rathbone is the hunchbacked Richard while Karloff is his bald-headed decapitator. Vincent Price is among Richard's victims--drowned in a vat of wine. Price got his turn at playing Richard of Gloucester in Corman's own B/W remake in 1962. The horror of his version was even more palpable; even if the monochrome photography was an odd fit nestled between Corman's color adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's works.

While the famous line of "It's alive!" is uttered once more, the sound of "It's a hit!" was heard in theaters across the country. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) was a huge success--ensuring the celluloid lineage didn't stop with the SON. And while the level of quality would deteriorate, the entertainment value would live on in four more sequels.

Originally, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN was to have been shot in color, but the decision to film in more moody B/W won out, although some test color footage with Karloff as the monster was shot. The B/W photography is among the best of any horror film with impeccable lighting and shadows draped over virtually every sequence. The influence of German Expressionist cinema is evidenced throughout as well. Lee's film is a veritable painting come to life; a beautiful, macabre picture in motion.

A gamble that paid off (even if they didn't roll the dice again in terms of budget), Universal captured lightning in a bottle with this third Frank flick. Brilliance abounds in this, the longest of the series (approximately 100 minutes in length). One of Universal's best in their long line of Golden Age Horror Pictures. It's not only alive, but the horror lives on all these years later.

This review is representative of Universal's Frankenstein Double Feature DVD paired with THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942). Specs and Extras: Full-frame presentation; Production notes; cast and crew information; running time: 01:39:20

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Absurd (1981) review


George Eastman (Nikos Stenopolis), Edmond Purdom (Priest), Katya Berger (Katia Bennett), Annie Belle (Emily), Kasimir Berger (Willie), Charles Borromel (Sergeant Engleman), Ted Rusoff (Dr. Kramer)

Directed by Joe D'Amato

The Short Version: Sort-of sequel to D'Amato's gross-out classick turns George Eastman's Greek cannibal into Michael Myers; and Edmund Purdom's scientist of the cloth into Dr. Loomis. There's a fleeting connection to ANTHROPOPHAGUS (1980) in this follow-up with a little more to chew on; and a handful of references to current American slashers (and foreshadowing slashers to come) that share screen time with some unique, excruciating death scenes. The pacing lags in spots, but the wild, nearly incomprehensible plot is occasionally tense and surprisingly entertaining overall. ABSURD is just that.

A mysterious Greek man is mortally wounded while being pursued by a strange priest. Undergoing emergency surgery in the hospital, it's discovered the Greek is virtually immortal--possessing the ability to repair damaged cells. The police learn that the priest is a biochemist and the insane man escaped from his lab in Greece; and that the only way to put an end to the hulking monster is to destroy his brain, the one organ that doesn't regenerate. Meanwhile, the murderous man leaves a trail of corpses before terrorizing the occupants of a villa--including a babysitter and two youngsters--one of which is Katia, a bedridden, teen-aged girl suffering from a spinal injury, who must escape the vicious monster before she becomes his next victim.

Joe D'Amato's gut-crunching cult favorite ANTHROPOPHAGUS (1980) was an international success so it didn't take much to convince producers and D'Amato himself to bring the Grim Reaper back for round two. With the release of FRIDAY THE 13TH in 1980, the slasher movie was about to explode; yet the precedent for the resuscitated killer returning for sequels hadn't been firmly established so Joe D'Amato (Aristide Massaccesi) and George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori) were unsung pioneers to a degree.

1981 was a banner year for slasher movies and two of the genres big guns-FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 and HALLOWEEN 2--were released that year. The former was Jason Voorhees's maiden voyage that saw him avenging the death of his mother; the latter had Michael Myers take six bullets before getting up and killing again on that same Halloween night; but George Eastman's 6'9" cannibal man required a bit more effort into his return.

Since the title flesh-consumer was last seen gorging on his own innards, how to logically bring him back presented a problem. While not really a direct sequel, it was marketed as one in some territories. The links to the first film are ambiguous at best, but more on that later. 

To his credit, George Eastman (yes, he's the writer, too!) devised a less ridiculous scenario than what the writers of HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION (2002) came up with two decades later in bringing Michael Myers back after he was decapitated in HALLOWEEN: H20 (1996). And with HALLOWEEN (1978) being an obvious influence on Eastman for the second sanguinary sojourn, there's more than a few similarities between them; as well as some original ideas that sets Eastman's lumbering butcher apart from your finer garden variety slashers.

Eastman's script (billed as John Cart for his writing credit) is vague on details, focusing on the scientific as opposed to supernatural means in what keeps his killer going. In this case, it's cell regeneration that makes Eastman's unstoppable killer so unstoppable. He never delves into what sort of experiments the priest was working on or why the crazed Nikos was his patient. Much like HALLOWEEN (1978), Eastman may have been intentionally leaving things to the imagination in the same way Carpenter did in presenting Michael Myers as a force of evil.

Some other nods to Carpenter's seminal classic include referring to the regenerating maniac as "the boogyman"; and the presence of a babysitter watching over two youngsters for the night. In ABSURD, the role of the babysitter is not the 'Final Girl'; that popular genre convention is reserved for an unlikely candidate in the form of Katia, a young teenager suffering from a spinal injury. This unique concept is easily the most creative addition to Eastman's script--even giving the film one helluva final shot to end the film on.

And whereas the Italians were famous for being influenced by American productions, it would appear that ABSURD--unwittingly or not--laid the groundwork for some of the American counterparts... like SILENT RAGE (1982), the only slasher movie to star Chuck Norris. Released in 1982, Chuck had to Karate chop, kick, run over, and throw off buildings, a maniac stupidly brought back to life by mad scientists via a serum that repaired damaged cells rendering him invulnerable.

The connection between the two ANTHRO films is negligible, but intriguing just the same. The character is still named Nikos and mention is made of him having been lost at sea. That's where the bridge ends with the first movie. Just for kicks, one could use their imagination in "filling in the blanks" by saying Nikos was found on the Greek Isle by the priest. Barely alive, he was taken under his care and experimented on to cure him of his insanity and craving of human flesh. This led to his inexplicable ability to naturally repair severe wounds.

Owing a lot to the slasher craze, ABSURD swipes a bit from the cinematic zombie outbreak of the time by stipulating the only method to kill Nikos is by shooting him in the head; or separating his noggin from his shoulders. Regarding said head removal, one can't help but think of Russell Mulcahy's wildly popular HIGHLANDER (1986) when it's divulged Nikos is immortal! 

ABSURD (1981) has some fascinating ideas along with the familiar ones, there just isn't a lot of plot orbiting around them. The film does slow down somewhat once the action settles at the Bennett house. It's here where the most tense moments occur, only these would be more effective if some fat had been shaved off in the editing room. Moreover, the English version runs 94 minutes (more dialog and extended, non-gory bits) while the Italian is a brisk 88 minutes. Some scenes go on too long--particularly a group of adults gathering to watch a football game in what amounts to some unintentional humor. Shot entirely in Italy, D'Amato and Eastman attempt to convey an American suburban setting, and fail terribly at it.

What keeps the movie alive are the gore effects and George Eastman himself--lumbering from one scene to the next, enthusiastically killing off the cast. He plays the character in much the same fashion as the prior movie--wild-eyed and grunting his sole form of communication--only he has a full head of hair and it doesn't look like oatmeal has been glued to his face.

Having met D'Amato during the shooting of  the THEY CALL ME TRINITY knock-off BEN AND CHARLIE (1972), Eastman and the versatile filmmaker formed a duo of their own that lasted nearly 20 years. Their most notorious collaboration came with the aforementioned ANTHROPOPHAGUS (aka THE GRIM REAPER aka THE SAVAGE ISLAND, etc); an occasionally suspenseful slasher sabotaged by technical flaws.

Edmund Purdom was a British actor of repute for approximately two decades between the 1950s and 1960s. When the 1970s rolled around, he began appearing in productions that catered to the exploitation crowd like THE DEVIL'S LOVER (1972) and FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS (1974). This sort of work dominated his resume in the 1980s with roles in films like PIECES (1982), 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983) and DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS (1984).

His unnamed character in ABSURD is a somewhat wasted opportunity. After the first 30 minutes, he's absent for long stretches of the movie. The idea of a priest who is also a scientist seeking a killer he is responsible for is an intriguing one; if only Eastman explored the character to any degree. He's more successful at capturing a meager atmosphere of HALLOWEEN (1978) via Eastman's killer and Purdom's priest. The latter even gets some brief dialog in the spirit of Donald Pleasence's Loomis with "... he's not a man anymore, he's a creature of evil." Just don't expect Purdom to approach the role with the same level of gusto as Pleasence did.

Released in the 1980s under a number of titles, one of the most prominent was MONSTER HUNTER; a Wizard Video VHS release with some incredible box art that had very little to do with the actual movie. With its 2018 US debut on blu-ray via Severin, the film has never looked better, allowing for a better assessment of D'Amato's work. Due to Eastman's creative penmanship, it's a slight improvement over the previous movie, with a much better score to boot (some cues sound like reworked tracks from Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX). It's a silly premise that works in spite of how outrageously ABSURD it is.

This review is representative of the Severin limited edition blu-ray set including ANTHROPOPHAGUS. Specs and extras: 1080p HD 1.85:1; Interview with George Eastman; archive interview with Joe D'Amato; interview with Michele Soavi; trailer; second disc is original soundtrack CD limited to 3,000 units; reversible cover art; running time: 01:33:55 (English dubbed version): 01:28:33 (Italian version w/English subtitles).
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