Thursday, November 29, 2012

Cool Ass Cinema Book Reviews: Dark Shadows 2012 Edition!


By Mark Salisbury

192 pages; hardcover; color

Over the course of its 1,225 episode run (two theatrical movies and a 90s revamp), Dan Curtis' daytime soap opera known as DARK SHADOWS amassed a legion of fans that all seem to share similar memories regarding the series. That fans say they "rushed home to see it after school" is seemingly a unanimous proclamation among those who saw it during its original run between 1966 through 1971.

About six months ago, Warner Brothers released a new DARK SHADOWS movie under the guidance of Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp in the iconic role of vampire Barnabas Collins (played to perfection by Jonathan Frid on the TV program and first movie from 1970). Like any other remake, fans were extremely divided on this one, both before and after it came out. One's pessimism or disdain will rely on how dedicated a fan of the series they are; or one's thoughts on the remaking machine that's had Hollywood in a death grip for at least ten years now with no end in sight.

After reading Mark Salisbury's DARK SHADOWS: THE VISUAL COMPANION, just out from Titan Books, it becomes clear that both Burton and Depp are devoted worshipers of the series. I've not seen the new film, but after reading, and skimming through the dozens of photos in this book, my interest has piqued to see this movie.

Furthermore, this volume isn't exclusively about the new picture. The adoration and loving memory towards the original Gothic television series resonates throughout the 192 glossy pages found herein. This fondness for Dan Curtis' groundbreaking program is apparent in Depp's Foreword and Burton's Introduction. There's a near ten page History of the long-running program, including some rare behind the scenes photographs (especially memorable is an on set photo from the Barnabas-less NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS [1971]).

The books five chapters all cover certain areas of the production such as the casting; which includes anecdotes from cast members. Other chapters cover the photography and effects work and set design among other technical aspects of the movie. The late Richard D. Zanuck (he died July 13th, 2012) provides an Afterword.

Even if you didn't like the movie, it's obvious the makers had the best intentions in bringing DARK SHADOWS into modern times with this new version. Mark Salisbury's book does a fantastic job of putting that notion across with an impressive amount of interview excerpts, behind the scenes photos, movie stills and conception artwork that gives the reader a look into the filmmaking process.

To order this book through amazon, click HERE.

For more information on this release, or ordering direct from Titan Books, click HERE.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Monster Kid Movie Memories Revisited: Collecting Budget VHS Tapes

Selling off all my VHS tapes back in the early 2000s wasn't an easy thing to do, but necessary since DVDs were quickly becoming the new format. Sadly, I was incredibly naive in thinking that everything I had on tape was surely going to surface on those new shiny discs. 

I had enough sense to hold onto around 70 or so tapes with the intention of having them transferred to DVD-R. Sadly, I didn't have enough sense to prod the "friend" that offered to transfer them all for me to do so. Eventually he, his mother, and his two kids moved away and I never saw my tapes again. I did at least get three transferred out of the lot, though.

The following tapes are a small stack that I found this past weekend at my grandmother's house that I had forgotten about. A few of these were among the very first VHS tapes I ever bought with my allowance. I was between 12-14 when I bought these. All of the tapes featured here are LP and EP mode recorded. You used to could find these budget label tapes at K-Mart, or other local stores such as Roses, which was here till about the mid 1990s.

I had never seen YOG, MONSTER FROM SPACE (1970) before, so upon spying this tape on one of those old swivel racks, I just had to have it. Sadly, the movie was a major letdown. The English dubbing being massively out of sync for about 15 minutes of the film didn't help, either. The tape seen at the top of the page is the YOG videocassette. Notice the wider spindles. Also, Trans-Atlantic Video could never be bothered to put the titles of the movies on their labels.

Andy Milligan may have made some of the worst films on Earth, but his real life would no doubt be better served to celluloid than anything he ever directed himself. I had passed many of his films on video store aisles like TORTURE DUNGEON (1969), BLOODTHIRSTY BUTCHERS (1970) and THE RATS ARE COMING! THE WEREWOLVES ARE HERE! (1972). 

Having bought TORTURE DUNGEON as a used tape and seeing the RAT/WEREWOLF nonsense on television, you'd think I'd of learned my lesson; but for whatever reason, I was willing to pay for some CARNAGE (1983). What a waste of money this pathetic haunted house-ghost-revenge movie was. Still, it was under $10, but $10 to a kid is a lot of money.

This was one of many budget tapes I owned bearing the 'Video Treasures' logo. They were my favorite label back in the day (late 80s-early 90s). I threw away so much money on their tapes and they had an incredibly varied selection of titles. My main interest at that time was horror and kung fu and Video Treasures had those in abundance.


SPECTACULAR DISASTERS was an early tape for me, and since I was a big fan of the original STAR TREK series (still am), having Sulu himself, George Takei, hosting a 45 minute documentary on the title cataclysms was a no-brainer. And this Congress Video Group tape definitely delivers on its promise.

Going back to Video Treasures, we have FILMHOUSE FEVER, a 1986 compilation that runs for approximately 60 minutes. 

Directed by Domonic Paris, this compact party tape has Steve Buscemi and Mark Boone Jr. heading out to a local movie marathon where they enjoy numerous clips of trashy movies, short films (early Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell shorts including one about a killer lawnmower!) and intermission spots. The ending is a humorous tip o' the hat to CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962).

Paris also directed the anemic Cannon distributed vampire flick DRACULA'S LAST RITES (1980) and another documentary entitled AMAZING MASTERS OF THE MARTIAL ARTS (which I used to have, as well). This one featured clips of numerous kung fu and swordplay features with clips of host Carter Wong doing basically the same kata over and over again swinging various Chinese weapons at the camera

Hopefully, I'll be able to transfer FILMHOUSE FEVER to DVD as I haven't seen it in over two decades.

BLOOD, SWEAT & GEARS was my 37 minute fascination with monster trucks and that whole 'Big Wheels & Big Thrills' monster truck madness that was big (there's that word again) back in the 80s. Bigfoot was the most popular of these, and probably that other one called Gravedigger was right behind it. 

After seeing this, I couldn't grasp what was so great about 'Mud Boggin'' -- driving a truck with outsized wheels through a mud-pit. 

That Sgt. Slaughter was part of this tape meant nothing to me as I had very little interest in WWF; which was the home of wrestling clowns and circus acts unlike the NWA where the wrestlers were more interested in collecting on other wrestlers "insurance policies". Damn, do I wish I still had those wrestling tapes, too!

In 1956 Lon Chaney Jr. was the INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, a C movie that was likely the first to feature an executed criminal returning from the dead; a concept that was right popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The movie is similar to FRANKENSTEIN (1931) as well as an earlier Lon flick, 1941s MAN MADE MONSTER. The back of the box erroneously states he is executed in the chair, but it's actually the gas chamber.

Back then, some of these tapes -- like the Trans-Atlantic tapes -- were as cheap as some of the budget DVDs you get in the Wal Mart bins of today. Cheapies like INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN could be had for around $5.

Lastly, it's another Video Treasures tape; this one an obscure Vincent Price film entitled BLOODBATH AT THE HOUSE OF DEATH (1984); a film that was jam packed with references to numerous famous horror pictures and even STAR WARS, of all things

I first read about it in Fangoria both before and after it hit videotape on these shores, so I was pretty hyped for it, especially after the disappointment that was HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983), a Pete Walker film with a cast nightmares are made of -- Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and John Carradine. 

Having been unable to find BLOODBATH in any of the local video stores, I jumped at the chance to buy it when VT released it in 1988. It was kind of middle of the road for me then, but this blackly humorous gore comedy might play better today, and it was made available on DVD in the UK back in 2008. Hell, it's way better than that unintentional comedy with Price, THE MONSTER CLUB (1981).

Several years later, Video Treasures would morph into Anchor Bay where they would unleash a slew of European horror movies on videocassette, often with misleading statements about films being uncut when they weren't; or being uncut and subbed in English when the only audio on the tape was an English dubbed track.

For me, collecting VHS tapes are little more than fond memories now. A great many continue to collect used tapes today, and often pay exorbitant prices for them. It's not quite the same experience now as, like our childhood, the swivel racks and video shelves of chain stores are all gone as is the excitement of uncovering some obscure monster flick that scared the hell out of you on Shock Theater the weekend before.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) review


Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Septimus Pretorious), Valerie Hobson (Elizabeth), Elsa Lanchester (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley/The Bride of The Monster), Dwight Frye (Karl), John Carradine (hunter)

Directed by James Whale

The Short Version: James Whale's spectacular sequel lays down the rules on how to deliver a 'Part 2' that works and surpass its predecessor. It's more or less the same film, but expands on both the mad scientist and monster mythos by introducing an even more devilish doctor and making Karloff's lumbering creature even more pitiable and tragic than before. The monster speaks, in addition to getting a potential mate. This is possibly the movie that muddled the attribution of the Frankenstein name to the monster as opposed to the doctor. Easily one of the most important horror films of all time; and one that, like other Universal horror pictures, laid the groundwork for thousands of nightmares to come.

On a dark and stormy night, Mary Shelley spins the continuation of her story, 'Frankenstein'. In it, the Monster survives being burned alive by the villagers inside the windmill. Presumed dead, Henry Frankenstein's body is returned to his castle where his fiance, Elizabeth awaits. As soon as the news breaks that the Monster is roaming the countryside, Elizabeth sees her seemingly dead husband-to-be move. Dr.  Frankenstein is still alive. The once mad doctor decides to give up his experiments with creating life, but is pushed into it again by both the evil Dr. Pretorious and also the Monster himself, who now desires a mate.

James Whale was enticed to return to Frankenstein's laboratory one more time in this superlative sequel that surpasses the original in virtually every way.

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is essentially the blueprint by which all great sequels have aspired to replicate. The budget is bigger; the sets are more expansive; the plot is mostly unchanged, but with enough additions to make things intriguing. Basically, Whale's sequel is bigger and better, yet it jettisons any attempt at being truly frightening; a road on which the first film took the scenic route.

BRIDE is more like a dark fairy tale; and since the sequel informs us from the very beginning that 1931s FRANKENSTEIN unfolded via the visual storytelling of Shelley herself, the surrealism of the indoor sets with those strikingly sinister monochromatic skies reinforces this fantasy quality. It's occasionally humorous, which some might find off-putting, yet these low-key comedic moments seem to fit within the fantasy framework and never threaten to derail the picture into the bowels of parody.

Take for instance the sequence where Dr. Pretorious coaxes Dr. Frankenstein to join him in an all new experiment. In it, the elder doctor shows off six assorted Homunculi he has created. The effects are still startlingly impressive even by today's standards. It reminded me a lot of the fantasy extravaganzas brought to life by Ray Harryhausen, particularly THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960). This one sequence alone is as far away from the dead serious tone of the previous picture as you can get. But again, this is more akin to a Grimm's Fairy Tale than outright horror. This bonding of fantasy with horror is seamless in Whale's movie and a testament to his skill that others would fail to replicate over the years.

Whale's never loses sight of what made the first movie such a ghoulish spectacle, but merely widens the playing field with a hearty dose of storybook qualities, richer characters and an indelible amount of pathos for its lead creature again played by Karloff.

Frankenstein's Monster is more pitiable here, and more likable till he comes into contact with Dr. Pretorius. It's at that point where the animalistic traits of Frankenstein's brutish creation come to the fore; induced by the sinister Pretorious.

Upon the monster's first appearance in BRIDE (which begins immediately after the end of the first movie), his anger at having been nearly destroyed in the burning of the windmill results in the murder of a couple of villagers. Not long after, he's being pursued through the forest till he comes across a young lady who falls into a small pool of water. Saving the woman's life, two hunters happen by and shoot the creature in the arm. This scene recalls the one from the first film with the creature by a river with a little girl. This scene also foreshadows the monsters desire for female companionship that surfaces a short time later.

Stumbling around through the woods, the creature finds an isolated cabin inhabited by an old blind man. This near ten minute sequence is possibly the best bit in the entire film mostly because of the amount of emotional evolution the monster engenders here. He finds his first real friend who teaches and encourages him to talk, introduces him to the most basic social standards, and also shows him that fire has its advantages, too, especially when it comes to a good cigar.

The two provide a good deal of companionship for one another (a moment where the monster sheds a tear upon realizing he's found someone who doesn't wish him harm is especially affecting) till John Carradine and another gun toting hunter show up and send the creature on the run again after inadvertently setting fire to his new-found friend's home. The blind man is never seen again, but his purpose of eliciting an emotional bond between the monster and the audience has been successful.

Once the monster comes into the company of Dr. Pretorious, the creature at first believes he's found an all new friend to enjoy a drink and a smoke with. It becomes obvious the sly, devilish doctor wishes to use the man-made monster to further his own evil agenda; this involving building the monster a mate in the hopes of establishing some new unholy race of beings. His purpose is never revealed, but it's obvious he's crazy, and for mad scientists, I suppose that's the only motivation required.

I presume this union -- of what amounts to two walking corpses -- is some sort of mockery of the Christian sanctity of marriage. Possibly not, but with the conspicuous amount of religious iconography (numerous crosses, Virgin Mary statues, the monster himself is crucified at one point) strategically placed throughout the movie, that was my interpretation of it. That the monster speaks(!) was also a controversial plot device that has also stirred unrest in horror circles for other, later genre franchises that dared to cross that line. Unlike other films, it actually works very well here, although subsequent Universal Frank films would abandon the creature's ability to articulate.


Giving Karloff's monster the ability to talk isn't the only "drastic" scripting idea here. Doctor Frankenstein's character (again essayed by Colin Clive) is also no longer mad. Reduced to seemingly secondary character status, he's sufficiently ashamed of having partaken in such an experiment. He goes from being a troubled man trying to get on with his life to being a victim and pawn once Pretorious ultimately forces him to join the even madder scientist in creating a female creature -- the bride of the title. 

Dwight Frye returns, but naturally as a different character. He's not a maniacal hunchback, but a murderous grave-robber named Karl. The one connection to his antecedent is that familiar, wild-eyed stare. He gets about the same amount of screen time, but is far more despicable this time out; and partnered with another seedy fellow in what I assume is a thinly veiled allusion to Burke and Hare.

Elsa Lanchester goes the dual role route essaying both Mary Shelley (seen at the beginning only) and also that of the hissing, recently resurrected Bride of Frankenstein. Brought to exquisitely ghoulish life via Jack Pierce's staggeringly effective makeup, the look of the Bride became just as iconic as that of his previous creation in turning Boris Karloff into a monster. This is no mean feat considering the Bride is only seen in but one official Frankenstein film. Her visage has been featured or referenced in one form or other in a slew of films and various pop culture paraphernalia; two of the most famous being Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) and also famous horror hostess, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark whose head piece (there's a joke in there somewhere) is a modified version of the Bride's familiar hairstyle.


When I first saw BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN as a kid, I wasn't all that taken with it. I do not know why, and I hadn't seen the picture in at least two decades and possibly longer. I do remember being perturbed that the Bride isn't seen till the end of the movie. I suppose being a kid, I was expecting something different considering the title. 

And now, a bit about this title that contributed to my mystification on the Frankenstein character.

I do know that while growing up, I was confused for a long time regarding who exactly was the doctor and who was the monster. There was an old copy of Shelley's novel at my grandmother's house from the 1960s that featured the gruesome visage of a monster on the front cover. That, coupled with Whale's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN mangled my perception of mad scientist and his creation. In BRIDE, the idea was to create a mate for the monster. But upon bringing her to life, it's obvious she fancies her creator and not her lumbering, corpse-composited admirer. 

Even though it's glaringly obvious the monster is never once referred to as Frankenstein, the connotation that the creature IS Frankenstein has been a long-standing presumption for decades. You can't have one without the other, though. I suppose a person could write a dissertation on the topic of man's dark side and his willingness to destroy in order to create where the subject of Frankenstein is concerned and most likely somebody already has.

To speak plainly, if you were to mention pop culture creatures like Dracula, or the Wolf Man, even non-genre fans will form a mental image of what they are in their mind. But if you say 'The Monster', there's no underlying figure with which to associate with. But if you say 'Frankenstein', everybody is going to instantly be reminded of a flat-topped walking corpse made up of bits and pieces of dead people with bolts in its neck; very few are going to identify the word 'Frankenstein' with the mad scientist.

Even the Japanese got caught up in this swapping around of doctor and creation that likely instigated this confusion further in 1965s FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON. It was released here as FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD the following year. While the monster featured in this Japanese movie is consistently referred to as 'Frankenstein' (the doctor is also referenced at the beginning), I suppose one could look at this analogously -- that doctor and his creature are one in the same.

Seeing BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN now, all these years later, it's a magnificent movie that surpasses everything that made the first FRANKENSTEIN so monstrously memorable. The performances, the art decor, the chiaroscuro styled cinematography and Jack Pierce's still impressive makeup effects work contribute to yet another Universal horror classic. It's debatable as to which is the better film, but James Whale truly delivered that rarity among sequels and did so in the most beautifully macabre way imaginable.

This review is representative of the Universal Frankenstein Legacy Collection DVD.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Frankenstein (1931) review



Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein), Boris Karloff (The Monster), Fritz (Dwight Frye), Mae Clarke (Elizabeth), Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman), Victor Moritz (John Boles)

Directed by James Whale

The Short Version: This is B/W horror at its finest and a true classic of the horror genre. It might be over 80 years old, but FRANKENSTEIN will live forever on behalf of a searingly spooky atmosphere, tight direction, superb make up, and spectacular lead performances especially that of Boris Karloff in a career branding role as the Frankenstein Monster. A spectacular film with a few scenes that resonate even today and an undying piece of dialog that has permeated the American cinematic lexicon all these years later. 


Dr. Frankenstein, obsessed with building new life by using various body parts taken from stolen cadavers, finally succeeds in creating a living being. The experiment is a success, but ultimately proves to be a failure through a series of disastrous events that leads to the frightened, angry villagers banding together to destroy the monster.

When I first saw the original FRANKENSTEIN, it was sometime in the late 1970s on a local version of Shock Theater. These vintage Universal monster classics were also a popular attraction on late night during the week; but Spooks Ran Wild on the weekends at any time during the day, and especially at night. There was a high probability that a local station would show a movie like this just before signing off for a few hours before daybreak.

I hadn't seen FRANKENSTEIN in its entirety since probably my childhood. The film was kept alive in my mind via a stack of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines I had accumulated before the periodical folded in 1983. FRANKENSTEIN, and other similar B/W classics were also the life's blood of The Pictorial History of Horror Films; a book I obtained via a trade in third grade. There was a renewed interest once Universal re-released them on DVD several years ago.

Seeing Whale's timeless classic again (including the sequels) after all these years was a real treat. For whatever reason, I took my time not only buying these movies (save for the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON set. Love the BLACK LAGOON movies!), but watching them, too. I suppose Hammer's interpretation of the subjects spoiled me for years against revisiting the Universal classics what with their bloody splashes of color and innovative take on the material. 

Interestingly, Hammer chose the Frankenstein character as their first such horror picture while Universal chose Dracula.

Seeing FRANKENSTEIN (and others) now, there's a beauty to Whale's film that's unmistakable in its operatic aura and hauntingly baroque art decor that's complemented by striking indoor sets. These recall earlier examples of German Expressionist cinema that can be seen in other Universal horror pictures till it had mostly dissipated by the 1940s.

Mexican horror cinema was also greatly influenced by Universal monster pictures of the 1930s replicating the atmosphere of their American counterparts. What those films lacked in budget, they made up for in creativity.

The acting in FRANKENSTEIN is also worth mentioning. The Silent Era served those actors well once recorded dialog became fashionable. Boris Karloff didn't have to say anything to evoke an incredible amount of emotional gravitas. It's truly a brilliant performance that's dominated by facial expressions, hand gestures and simple grunts and groans to convey the monster's feelings. Boris Karloff became a major genre player here, and is easily the best, most recognized actor to play the role of Frankenstein's Monster.

Colin Clive is equally mesmerizing as Henry Frankenstein. It's a joy watching him gradually explode at the seams leading up to his monster being brought to life. Up to that point, he's the epitome of the 'Mad Scientist' schematic. Afterward, he wears this emotional mask of regret and despair of the grave mistake he has made.

Dwight Frye, fresh off DRACULA (1931), is back as another off-kilter character as the hunchbacked Fritz. He's not in the film all that much, but during his short time onscreen, he shows himself to be a deplorable sadist. His exit from the film was a shocker to me as a kid. I figured it was a given he'd kick the bucket, but the distant, blood-curdling scream followed by the discovery of his corpse sent chills up my spine as a small boy

The make up by Jack Pierce is still an impressive work of art all these years later. It's even more astounding when one looks at the handful of films that crudely copied Pierce's iconic design over the years; these others pale in comparison to his original work.

At a brisk 70 minutes (with credits), FRANKENSTEIN delivers dynamite performances and barrels of atmosphere. It might be dated, but the film still holds weight as one of the greatest horror films of all time; spear-headed by two unforgettable performances and a signature line of dialog that remains a potent part of pop culture iconography.

This review is representative of the Universal Legacy Collection.

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