Like Its Undead Characters, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994) Has Aged Well

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Interview With The Vampire posterStreaming Video Review:  INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994)

By

Michael Arruda

 

I have to confess that I’ve never been a fan of Anne Rice’s novel Interview With The Vampire for the simple reason that when it was published in 1976, I had just read another vampire novel that immediately became one of favorite books of all-time:  Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.  As a twelve year-old reading Rice’s novel, I simply couldn’t get King’s novel out of my head.

And so when the movie version of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE was finally released in 1994 I wasn’t all that excited to see it.  Plus, I was not a Tom Cruise fan at all, and so with Cruise in the lead as the vampire Lestat, I was even less interested in it, and to be fair, I did not give this movie a fair shake upon its initial release.  I was quick to dismiss it.

Recently, I decided it was time to give this movie another look.  For starters, as Tom Cruise has aged, he has chosen more interesting film roles, and I’ve actually enjoyed his performances over the last ten years or so.  Plus, after the TWILIGHT movies, I figured INTERVIEW would seem vastly superior in comparison.

I was right.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE has aged well.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE begins in modern day, where a young man Daniel Malloy (Christian Slater) interviews a vampire, Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt).  As Louis tells his story, the time shifts to the past, to 1790s New Orleans, where Louis, distraught over the recent death of his wife and infant baby, wants to die.  Instead, he’s turned into a vampire by Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise).

The story then follows the love/hate relationship between these two vampires.  Louis hates being a vampire, and refuses to drink the blood of humans.  Lestat seems to go out of his way to torment Louis, while claiming to be trying to help Louis survive.  When Louis threatens to leave, Lestat turns a young girl Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) into a vampire so Louis will have another friend besides himself.

Eventually, Louis and Claudia escape from Lestat and travel to Paris because they have heard that other vampires reside there.  They meet the vampire Armand (Antonio Banderas) who leads a band of vampires who live on the streets of Paris.  Eventually, Lestat returns to reclaim Louis and Claudia, setting the stage for the film’s conclusion.

The biggest reason I’ve never been a huge fan of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE is its high drama vampire plot.  I prefer my vampires a bit more monstrous than the undead folks who populate INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.  While I do enjoy the individual struggles these vampires face, I don’t like the main story they find themselves in.  I like watching Louis deal with his disdain for vampirism.  I like watching Lestat’s manipulations and dramatic musings.  I like watching Claudia’s bursts of teen angst and emotion.  However, the main story arc here plays more like a soap opera plot to me than a vampire tale.  It also doesn’t play like much of a horror movie.

So, what did I like better this time around watching INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE on Netflix Streaming twenty years after its initial release?

For starters, the acting is very good.  I liked Brad Pitt as Louis, although at times he did seem a little less horrified than he should have been about his condition.

Tom Cruise probably impressed me the most, which I find ironic, since his performance probably turned me off the most when I first saw this movie back in 1994.  He’s very good as Lestat.  He doesn’t quite capture Lestat the way I imagined him from the book.  I remember him being a darker character in Anne Rice’s novel, but Cruise infuses him with so much dramatic energy, at times, it was like watching Liberace as a vampire, and Cruise captures this essence without being comical.

A very young Kirsten Dunst is also exceptional as Claudia, and she steals most of the scenes she’s in.  Likewise, Antonio Banderas was impressive as Armand, as was Stephen Rea as Armand’s fellow vampire Santiago.

I also enjoyed the look of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.  Director Neil Jordan has created a very good looking horror movie.  It’s all very atmospheric and hearkens back to the Hammer vampire movies of old.  Jordan’s previous film before INTERVIEW was THE CRYING GAME (1992) which back in the early 1990s I liked much better than INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.

Anne Rice wrote the screenplay, based on her novel, and it’s adequate as those things go.  Again, the story has never wowed me.

Another reason I enjoyed INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE more today than when it first came out is the TWILIGHT series.  Having had to suffer through those movies over the past decade, the way they reduced vampires to one-dimensional caricatures in a young adult romance, was one of the more painful cinematic experiences I’ve ever had to endure.  One movie, okay, that’s not so bad.  But an entire series of these clunkers?  Ugh!

So, in comparison, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE is like the Mona Lisa, which by the way, is another movie title by director Neil Jordan, as he directed the well-received MONA LISA (1986) starring Bob Hoskins.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE has aged well. It boasts a solid directorial effort by Neil Jordan, and visually it’s very impressive.  It’s well-acted by Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Kirsten Dunst.  True, it’s still not my favorite vampire tale, but it does have rich resonating characters who more than make up for the weaknesses in the story.

—END—

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PICTURE OF THE DAY: CHRISTOPHER LEE as DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

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Christopher Lee as Dracula in DRACULA - PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

Christopher Lee as Dracula in DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

PICTURE OF THE DAY

Christopher Lee is looking mighty menacing in this black and white still from DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), Hammer Films’ second Christopher Lee Dracula movie and sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).

There’s something extra impressive about the black and white photography here.  It could be simply that the film was shot in color, and so a black and white still gives it an added artistic look.

Christopher Lee passed away earlier this year, and this photo is yet another reminder of the talent lost with his passing.  Just by his powerful gaze, Lee was able to frighten audiences.

Enjoy this photo of Christopher Lee as Dracula from DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

SHOCK SCENES: IT’S ALIVE!!!!!

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SHOCK SCENES:  IT’S ALIVE!!!!! Frankenstein - 8mm

By Michael Arruda

Welcome back to SHOCK SCENES, the column where we look at memorable scenes in horror movie history.

We’re celebrating a birthday today.

Sort of.

Today we celebrate the birth— and rebirth— of the Frankenstein Monster in the Universal Frankenstein series.

We’ll be looking at the various creation scenes in the Universal Frankenstein movies.  Technically, the Monster was only created once, in the first film, FRANKENSTEIN (1931) but Henry Frankenstein did such a good job creating life that his Monster in spite of the best efforts of angry villagers and exploding castles and laboratories just couldn’t seem to die.  So, while the Monster would be “killed” at the end of each movie, he’d be “revived” in subsequent films.

In today’s SHOCK SCENES column, we’ll look at the Monster’s various turns in the laboratory and compare how they all stack up.

By far, the best creation scene was the first, in James Whale’s classic FRANKENSTEIN.  Who can forget Colin Clive shrieking “It’s alive!!” as he watches his creation come to life.  The lab equipment by Ken Strickfaden (later used again in Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) with its flashing lights and zip-zapping electrical sounds was strictly for show and had very little scientific relevance, but oh what a show!  It set the precedent for all the Frankenstein movies to come.

Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) prepares to create life in FRANKENSTEIN (1931).

Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) prepares to create life in FRANKENSTEIN (1931).

Even more memorable than the whirring electrodes and blinking lights was the everlasting dramatic image of the lab table with the unborn body of the Monster lying on it rising to the top of the towering ceiling of Frankenstein’s lab making its way through a giant opening high into the sky into the raging thunder and lightning.  Henry Frankenstein literally raises his unborn creation into the heavens to give it its life spark.

And when he brings the table back down to the ground, and we see the Monster’s hand moving and witness Henry Frankenstein’s reaction, “It’s alive!” it provides one of the most iconic scenes in horror movie history.

I can only imagine how terrified movie audiences were back in 1931 watching this story unfold for the first time of a dead body coming to life, and in that moment, seeing for the first time that the corpse on the table wasn’t a corpse anymore but a living being.  It must have been chilling.

The creation scene in FRANKENSTEIN is not only the best creation scene in the Universal series, but it’s also the best creation scene in any FRANKENSTEIN movie period!  Countless Frankenstein movies have been made since.  None have matched this scene, and few have come close.  The closest is Hammer’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) but that’s a story for another day.

James Whale’s sequel to FRANKENSTEIN, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) has the distinction of being the only Frankenstein film in the series in which the Frankenstein Monster (Boris Karloff) doesn’t spend any time on a laboratory table getting zapped with life-reviving electricity.

When the film opens, it’s revealed that the Monster survived the fire in the windmill at the end of FRANKENSTEIN, and so he’s already up and running when this movie begins.  There’s no need for him to receive a laboratory “pick me up.”

Of course, there is a creation scene in BRIDE, and it’s the climactic scene near the end where the Monster’s Bride (Elsa Lanchester) is finally brought to life.  As creation scenes go, it’s a good one, and the staging here by director James Whale is more elaborate than in FRANKENSTEIN, but as is often the case, bigger isn’t necessarily better.  And it is bigger, as the lab set is larger, and the sequence where the lab table rises through the roof is on a grander scale than the original and includes kites flying into the lightning-charged sky.

There’s a lot to like in this scene.  The dramatic electrical equipment is back again, and not only do you have Colin Clive back as Henry Frankenstein, but you also have Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorious, as well as Karloff’s Monster who’s in the lab to prompt Henry to keep working to make his bride.  Heck, Clive even gets to shout “She’s Alive!’

It’s a very good scene.  However, it’s nowhere near as shocking or dramatic as the creation scene in the original FRANKENSTEIN.

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) is the first film in the series in which the Monster (Boris Karloff) is viewed as a patient in need of ongoing medical treatment.  Ygor (Bela Lugosi) tells Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), the adult son of Henry Frankenstein, that the Monster is “sick” and “weak” and needs to be strong again.

Ygor (Bela Lugosi) and Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) examine their "patient", the Monster (Boris Karloff) in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939).

Ygor (Bela Lugosi) and Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) examine their “patient”, the Monster (Boris Karloff) in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939).

The Monster “died” at the end of THE BRIDE OF FRAKENSTEIN when the entire lab blew up, but as we learn in this movie, Henry Frankenstein and his electric rays were so successful at creating life that basically the Monster cannot die- or at least he’s more difficult to kill than ordinary human beings.  And so when we first see him in this film, he’s lying on a table in a semi-conscious state.  In fact, he spends a lot of time in this movie in a semi-conscious state which is why a large chunk of this film is less compelling than the two movies which preceded it.  The Monster isn’t up and running and scaring people until two thirds of the way into this one.

There really isn’t a creation scene in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.  After some preliminary examinations, Basil Rathbone’s Wolf Frankenstein uses a much smaller assortment of electrical devices to attempt to bring the Monster back to full strength.  It’s all very undramatic. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is a very entertaining movie, the most elaborate of the entire series, but its “creation” scene is a dud and probably the least dramatic of the entire series.

The fourth film in the series THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942) saw Lon Chaney Jr. taking over the role of the Monster, replacing Boris Karloff.  Chaney played all four of the major movie monsters (the Wolf Man, Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Mummy) and played them well; however, his portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster was his least satisfying.

In THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, the Monster (Lon Chaney Jr.) is revived without the help of electrical equipment in a laboratory, as Ygor (Bela Lugosi) simply finds his friend buried in a Sulphur pit where he fell at the end of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and he simply digs him out.

The more dramatic laboratory scenes come later.  Ygor takes the Monster to see Henry Frankenstein’s second son Ludwig (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), who’s a doctor who treats mental illness, but no, he doesn’t hold psychiatric sessions with the Monster in this one.  He does attempt to use his laboratory equipment to destroy the Monster, before changing his mind when he’s visited by the “ghost” of his father who inspires him to keep the Monster alive.

The more dramatic “creation” scene happens at the end of THE GHOST OF FRAKENSTEIN when the devious Dr. Bowmer (Lionel Atwill) conspires with Ygor to secretly transplant Ygor’s brain into the Monster in order to give the all-powerful creation a sinister mind to use on a world-conquering power trip.  Alas, the actual transplant occurs off-screen, and so visually this scene has little to offer, but in terms of story, it’s all rather dramatic and exciting.

The next film in the series, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) contains my second favorite creation scene in the entire series.  Again, the Monster doesn’t need a lab to bring him back to life.  This time around, Wolf Man Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) discovers the body of the Monster (Bela Lugosi) frozen in ice and simply digs him out.   The Monster doesn’t even have to be revived after being frozen for all those years, as he simply steps out of the ice and is feeling as right as rain.

The creation scene once again comes at the end of the movie, a pattern which would continue for the rest of the series.  This time around, Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles) agrees to use Dr. Frankenstein’s notes to put Larry Talbot out of his misery, a plan proposed by Talbot himself, as he’s seeking release from his werewolf curse.  So, they set up shop in Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein’s old laboratory from THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, and Mannering attempts to transfer Talbot’s energy (thus killing him) into the Monster, but Mannering, like all good scientists in these movies, becomes obsessed with the Monster and decides to pour all the electrical juices into the creature to bring him back to full strength.

The Monster (Bela Lugosi) regains his sight in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943).

The Monster (Bela Lugosi) regains his sight in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943).

When the Monster finally gains his strength, he smiles a sinister smile, and it’s a great moment for Lugosi’s Monster.  In the original script, the Monster was supposed to be blind, a side-effect of the brain transplant at the conclusion of THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, and it’s this moment when the Monster regains his sight, which is why he smiles.  All references to the Monster being blind were cut from the final print, but even so, Lugosi’s smile here is still very effective.

And what follows is the climactic battle between the Monster and the Wolf Man inside the laboratory.  It’s a great sequence, one of the best in the series.

Sadly, the Monster would take a huge step backwards in the next two films in the series, as would the creation scenes. HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) is significant because it added Dracula (John Carradine) to the mix, giving the movie three monsters, as the Frankenstein Monster (now played by Glenn Strange) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) returned.  It also marked the return of Boris Karloff to the series, although not as the Monster but as the evil Dr. Niemann, a protégé of Dr. Frankenstein, who is more insane and ruthless than any of the Dr. Frankensteins who appeared earlier.  Niemann is much closer in spirit to Dr. Pretorious from BRIDE and Peter Cushing’s interpretation of Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer movies.

Alas, the Monster spends the majority of this movie as an unconscious body, lying in wait for Niemann to restore his strength.  This occurs at the end of the movie, in a brief sequence, and the Monster is only on his feet long enough to be instantly chased and “killed” by the angry mob of torch wielding villagers who chase him into a pit of quicksand where he and Dr. Neimann sink to their deaths.

Ditto for the next film in the series, HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945).  All three monsters return again here, but once again the Frankenstein Monster is reduced to being a reclining patient and isn’t revived until the final seconds of the movie.  Very sad.

Ironically, it would take turning the series into a comedy with ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) to return the monsters to prominence.  Bela Lugosi returned as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. was back as the Wolf Man, and Glenn Strange finally had much more to do as the Frankenstein Monster than just lie on a table— he even gets to talk!—and so in spite of the fact that this is a comedy, the monsters all fare well.

Likewise, the creation scene in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN is also a good one.  This time around, Dracula plans to put Lou Costello’s brain into the Monster.  With the electrical equipment whirring and buzzing, both Lou and the Monster are strapped to tables, but when Bud Abbot and Larry Talbot burst into the lab to the rescue, Talbot turns into the Wolf Man and instantly tangles with Dracula, while the Monster breaks from his binds and promptly tosses Dracula’s sexy female assistant out a window!

Seriously, this creation scene in spite of being played for laughs, is one of the more memorable scenes in the series.

Who knew that it would take Abbott and Costello to give the Universal Monsters a proper send off?  This would be the final film in the series.

So, there you have it.  A look at the creation scenes in the Universal Frankenstein movies.  By far, the original creation scene in FRANKENSTEIN is the best.  None that followed even come close, but if I had to rank the next couple, I’d go with the creation scene in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN second, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN third, and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN fourth.  The rest hardly warrant a blip.

Hope you enjoyed today’s column, and I look forward to seeing you again next time on a future installment of SHOCK SCENES.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

LEADING LADIES: VERONICA CARLSON

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carlson - maria

Veronica Carlson

LEADING LADIES:  Veronica Carlson

By Michael Arruda

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, the column where we look at leading ladies in horror movies, especially from years gone by.

Today we look at the career of Veronica Carlson, the Hammer starlet who burst onto the scene in the Hammer Dracula movie, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) and would go on to add her beauty and elegance to several more Hammer Films before leaving the business altogether for two decades.  She returned to films in the 1990s and has since appeared in a few low budget movies.

But she’s best known for her roles in the Hammer movies, and if you’ve seen her, you know the reason why.  Sure, she was stunningly beautiful back in the day— she was a former model, after all— but she was also a decent actor.  It’s really too bad she didn’t make more movies.

In DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE Carlson plays Maria, a young woman who ends up being Dracula’s most sought after victim.  In this, the third film in the Hammer Dracula series, Dracula (Christopher Lee) seeks revenge against the Monsignor (Rupert Davies) who had exorcised his castle, and he does this by pursuing the Monsignor’s niece, Maria (Veronica Carlson).

Carlson is absolutely beautiful in this movie.  She shares most of her screen time with her goofy intellectual boyfriend Paul (Barry Andrews) who eventually gets to be the hero in this one, and she’s very convincing as a young lover infatuated with her handsome boyfriend.  She’s also sufficiently frightened and mesmerized by Dracula.

Carlson followed up this performance with the female lead in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969), Hammer’s darkest Frankenstein movie.  She plays Anna, engaged to a young doctor Karl (Simon Ward), and all is well until these two young lovers are blackmailed by Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) into helping him with his latest creation.  This film also contains the most controversial scene in the entire series, where the Baron rapes Anna, a scene that Peter Cushing is on record as saying he did not want to do.

Anna (Veronica Carlson) tormented by Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing)

Anna (Veronica Carlson) tormented by Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969).

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED is a lurid, brutal movie, and Veronica Carlson is up to the task at playing the tormented victim of Baron Frankenstein.  One of her best scenes finds her dragging a dead body which has been unearthed by a busted water main in her courtyard, and she has to do this while she’s pummeled by a forceful water spray, because if she doesn’t hide the body and the authorities discover it, she’ll either be arrested or worse, have to face the wrath of Baron Frankenstein.  It’s a chilling suspenseful scene.

Carlson also appeared in the next Hammer Frankenstein movie, THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970), the only film in the series not to star Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein. THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN was Hammer’s failed attempt to re-boot the series with Ralph Bates playing a younger Baron Frankenstein in what amounted to be a remake of sorts of their first Frankenstein movie, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN was directed by longtime Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, and unfortunately, he proved to be a better writer than a director. THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is the worst film in the series with very little to offer other than a fine cast, which included Ralph Bates and Veronica Carlson.  Carlson is quite good yet again, but she’s simply not enough to save this movie.

Veronica Carlson would star with Peter Cushing one more time in THE GHOUL (1974), a mediocre horror movie about an attic holding a sinister secret. This one also co-starred a young John Hurt.

Carlson may return to the big screen here in 2015.  She’s listed in the credits of a still unreleased horror movie called THE RECTORY.  It would be nice to see her on the big screen again, even now at 70 years old.

Here’s a partial list of Carlson’s 21screen credits, concentrating mostly on her horror films:

SMASHING TIME (1967) – Movie Actress At Premiere- Carlson’s first screen credit, a bit part in a musical comedy starring Michael York and Lynn Redgrave.

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) – Maria- Carlson impresses in her first starring role in this third Christopher Lee Hammer Dracula movie, the studio’s most profitable horror movie ever.  A box office smash.

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) – Anna – tormented and terrorized by Peter Cushing’s evil Baron Frankenstein.  Probably Carlson’s most riveting performance.

CROSSPLOT (1969) – Dinah- small role in this thriller starring Roger Moore which also features Moore’s future Bond boss “M” Bernard Lee as well as Hammer supporting actor Francis Matthews.

PUSSYCAT, PUSSYCAT, I LOVE YOU (1970) – Liz – comedy starring Ian McShane with a screenplay co-written by Woody Allen.

THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970) – Elizabeth Heiss – stars in her second Frankenstein film for Hammer, the only one without Peter Cushing.  Ralph Bates is OK as the devilish Baron Frankenstein, but Darth Vader himself David Prowse plays a pretty ineffective monster.

OLD DRACULA (1974) – Ritva – awful horror comedy starring David Niven as Count Dracula, released the same year as Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, no doubt trying to cash in on that film’s success.  Also stars fellow Hammer actress Linda Hayden and Carlson’s FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED co-star Freddie Jones.

THE GHOUL (1975) – Daphne – Mediocre horror film starring Peter Cushing as a man with a sinister secret.  Also stars John Hurt.  Carlson’s last film appearance for 19 years.

BLACK EASTER (1994) – Veronica Carlson returns to horror movies in this B movie terror tale.

FREAKSHOW (1995) – Grace Harmsworth – Carlson in another B movie, this one an anthology, also starring Leatherface himself Gunnar Hansen from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974).  Reportedly Carlson’s segment is the best.

THE RECTORY – An as-of-yet unreleased horror movie evidently in production at present with Veronica Carlson’s name in the credits.

I was fortunate enough to meet Veronica Carlson at a horror movie convention in the late 1990s.  It was one for the ages, as it was the same convention where I met Christopher Lee, Ingrid Pitt, and Michael Ripper.

Veronica Carlson will be forever remembered for her notable performances in two of Hammer’s best shockers, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, and FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED.

Hopefully we’ll see her on the big screen again.

Veronica Carlson was born on September 18, 1944, in Yorkshire, England, UK.   At present she is 70 years old and living in the U.S. where she enjoys a successful painting career.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

WES CRAVEN: AN APPRECIATION

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WES CRAVEN

August 2, 1939 – August 30, 2015

Wes Craven

Wes Craven

An Appreciation

By Michael Arruda

 

With the passing of Wes Craven on August 30, 2015, at the age of 76, the world has lost one of its finest horror movie directors.  Craven might not have liked that label, as he wanted to branch out beyond horror movies, and sometimes he did just that.

I was never a huge fan of Wes Craven’s films.  His biggest hit, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), the film which introduced the iconic character Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) to the world, never really impressed me all that much, and unlike most other horror fans, I never found it to be all that scary.

Probably my favorite film in the series was the only other one Craven directed, WES CRAVEN’S NEW

Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) gives audiences nightmares.

Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) gives audiences nightmares.

NIGHTMARE (1994).  In NEW NIGHTMARE Craven and the actors from the first movie play themselves, haunted by the real Freddy Krueger.  It was a neat imaginative premise, and it breathed new life into the series at the time.

Craven’s second hit movie series— not many horror directors can make that claim, that they successfully helmed two horror movie franchises—- was the SCREAM series and began with the movie SCREAM (1996), a film that was both frightening and hip, as it poked fun at the genre and had a self-awareness about it that kept things playful throughout.  I’ve always preferred SCREAM over A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, although in terms of the sequels, I’m not a fan of any of them in either series, except for the aforementioned NEW NIGHTMARE.

Craven’s early films are considered his best, films like the rough and raw THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972), his debut movie, and THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977).

Craven also directed the well-received THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988) and THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991), as well as the misfires SWAMP THING (1982), SHOCKER (1989) and VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN (1995).

Sadly, Craven’s career ended on a low note with a series of pretty bad horror movies, including CURSED (2005), MY SOUL TO TAKE (2010) and SCREAM 4 (2011), all pretty forgettable movies.

I did like his non-horror suspense thriller RED EYE (2005) about a terrorist plot aboard a plane.

The masked killer in SCREAM.

The masked killer in SCREAM.

And I’ve always thought that the opening scene in SCREAM where Drew Barrymore’s character is terrorized and viciously murdered is one of the more brutal and terrifying opening scenes you’ll find in a horror movie.

Wes Craven, master of nightmares and screams, dead from brain cancer at 76.

Wes Craven

August 2, 1939 – August 30, 2015

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)

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Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Boris Karloff classic THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), published this month in the September 2015 HWA NEWSLETTER.

—Michael

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHTbride-of-frankenstein-movie-poster-1935

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

September.

Time to put the frivolous films of summer aside in favor of the horror movie heavyweights, time for one of the most critically acclaimed horror movies of all time, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).

In the annals of mainstream cinema, there are very few horror movies which earn a four star rating. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is one of them.  Not only is it considered a better movie than its predecessor, FRANKENSTEIN (1931) but it’s widely viewed as the best FRANKENSTEIN movie ever filmed.  While it’s hard to argue against this assertion, I actually prefer FRANKENSTEIN over BRIDE since it’s a scarier film, but that doesn’t take away my appreciation for BRIDE.

THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN opens with a prologue in which Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester, who also plays the titled Bride of Frankenstein later in the movie) tells her husband Percy Shelley and fellow Romantic poet Lord Byron that her story did not end with the Monster perishing inside the burning windmill.  There’s more to the tale, she says.

The action then segues to just after the conclusion of FRANKENSTEIN, with the villagers watching the windmill burn to the ground, and we quickly see that the Monster (Boris Karloff) has survived the fire and escapes.  Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) survives as well, and he resumes his plans to marry Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), but these plans are interrupted when he’s visited by his old professor, Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger) who tries to convince Henry to continue his experiments, but Henry is not interested.

Meanwhile, the Monster is loose in the countryside, inadvertently terrifying everyone he comes in contact with.  He’s hunted down and briefly chained in a prison before he escapes.  In the film’s most touching scene, he befriends a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) who teaches the Monster how to speak and shows him considerable compassion, even prompting the Monster to shed a tear at one point.  But even this ends badly when two hunters happen upon the hermit’s cabin and “rescue” him from the Monster.

Eventually, the Monster crosses paths with Dr. Pretorious, who tells the Monster he wants to create a mate for him, but that he needs Henry Frankenstein’s help for the experiment to succeed.  The Monster agrees to work with Pretorious to compel Henry Frankenstein to make him a mate.

By far the best part of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is the development of the Frankenstein Monster.  The role is taken to a whole other level, and Boris Karloff delivers a brilliant performance.  This time around, the Monster is conscious of who he is and how he came to be.  When Pretorious asks him if he knows who he is and who Henry Frankenstein is, he answers, “Yes, I know.  Made me from dead.  I love dead.  Hate living.”

And of course the Monster learns how to talk in this movie, which is a huge development in the story and makes the Monster an entirely deeper character than he was in the first film.  Sure, it takes away some of his frightening brutality, but it also makes him much more interesting.

The look of the Monster is also unique in BRIDE, as make-up artist Jack Pierce singed the Monster’s hair and face to show that he had been burned in the windmill.

Colin Clive returns as Henry Frankenstein, and once again, he’s excellent in the role.  Clive broke his leg shortly before filming, which is why in the majority of his scenes in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN he’s sitting down. Sadly, Clive died two years later in 1937 from pneumonia as a result of his alcoholism, and he never lived long enough to see or take advantage of his increasing fame through the decades as the iconic Henry Frankenstein in these two classic Frankenstein movies.

Stealing the show, however, is Ernest Thesiger as the evil Dr. Pretorious, in a role originally offered to Claude Rains.  Thesiger is a delight to watch, as he instigates Henry Frankenstein throughout, eventually teaming up with the Monster in order to force Henry to create the Monster’s mate.  Thesiger’s Pretorious is a nice precursor to Peter Cushing’s interpretation of Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Films, although Cushing would take things a step further and make his Baron an even darker character.  It’s a shame Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorious only appeared in this one Frankenstein movie.

Ernest Thesiger steals the show as the conniving Dr. Pretorious in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Ernest Thesiger steals the show as the conniving Dr. Pretorious in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Dwight Frye, who famously played the hunchback assistant Fritz in FRANKENSTEIN after his even more famous role as Renfield in DRACULA (1931) appears in BRIDE as the grave robber/murderer Karl who assists Pretorious and once again has the distinction of being murdered by the Monster.  The original role of Karl was much bigger and included a scene where Karl murders his aunt and uncle and then blames the Monster for the crime, which is why at the end of the movie the Monster goes out of his way to kill Karl.  These scenes were cut prior to the film’s release.

The iconic Bride with the lightning-strike hair was played by Elsa Lanchester, who made such an impression with this role it’s easy to forget that she’s only in the movie for about five minutes, and that’s it!  Yet she hisses her way to infamy, prompting the Monster to complain, “She hate me!  Like others!”   Ah, the pains of dating!

Monster bound

The Monster (Boris Karloff) is bound by the angry mob.

Director James Whale, who directed FRANKENSTEIN, is at the helm once again for THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and he does another masterful job.  He sets up several memorable scenes in this one, even making the Monster a Christ figure. When the mob binds the Monster and hoists him up on a huge pole where he hangs for several moments as they throw sticks and stones at him, the scene definitely brings to mind a crucifixion.  And in the sequence with the blind hermit, as the Monster sheds a tear, just before the camera fades to black, it focuses on a crucifix which illuminates and remains the sole image after the fade.

The scene where the villagers pursue the monster is shot with a moving camera, and it’s every bit as impressive as the chase scene at the conclusion of FRANKENSTEIN.  Henry Frankenstein’s lab is bigger in this sequel, and the bride creation sequence is more elaborate than the creation scene in the original, as this one includes flying kites high above the roof of the laboratory.

The one thing lacking in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN that FRANKENSTEIN did better is scares.  The Monster in FRANKENSTEIN as played by Boris Karloff was a brutal unstoppable force that was frightening every time he was on screen, not because he was evil, but because he was tremendously strong and unpredictable, possessing raw incredible strength unchecked by learning or experience.  In FRANKENSTEIN, the Monster had no knowledge of life and death, right and wrong.  But in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN the Monster does know, which makes him a much more fascinating character, and since he develops a conscience rather than become evil, he’s much less frightening.

The screenplay by William Hurlbut and a host of uncredited writers is thought-provoking throughout. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is critically acclaimed because it takes the infamous murderous Monster from FRANKENSTEIN and humanizes him, enabling him to reflect upon his existence, which ultimately causes him even more tragedy and pain.

THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN also contains a phenomenal music score by Franz Waxman.

Without doubt, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is one of the best horror movies ever made.  It was a hit and a critical success upon its initial release in 1935, and today, 80 years later, its reputation is even stronger.

Looking for first-rate horror movie fare this September?  Look no further than Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

It’s one wedding you don’t want to miss!

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AMERICAN ULTRA (2015) Is A One-Joke Movie, But It’s a Good Joke

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Here’s my review of AMERICAN ULTRA (2015) published at cinemaknifefight.com this past weekend.

—Michael

 

MOVIE REVIEW:  AMERICAN ULTRA (2015)

By Michael ArrudaAmerican Ultra poster

 What do you get when you cross THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002) with ZOMBIELAND (2009) or any other Jesse Eisenberg movie for that matter?

You get AMERICAN ULTRA (2015), an action comedy that puts Eisenberg and his now recognizable shtick- the super smart socially awkward yet likable guy who can charm women and flip off men in the same sentence and be eloquent about it— into a Jason Bourne plot.  Now, I like Eisenberg and his style of humor, and so for the most part I liked this movie.  It’s held back only by a story that isn’t good enough for its two main characters.

AMERICAN ULTRA stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as a young couple in love, seemingly held back from getting anywhere in life because Eisenberg’s character is a stoner who spends most of his life getting high, but Stewart’s character loves him all the same.

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) works at a small grocery store and that’s about as good as it gets for him.  He does have a beautiful girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart) who loves him to a fault, and she seems content and happy to love him just the way he is.  Mike wants to propose to Phoebe, but he never seems to find the right time or place.  He also spends his free time doodling, sketching and writing a comic about a superhero monkey.

And that’s his life, until one day two men show up at his store and try to kill him, but before they do, he jumps into assassin mode and quickly makes short work of them.  Confused and frightened, he calls Phoebe, and she rushes to his aid, only to be arrested with him once the police arrive at the scene. But their time in a jail cell is short-lived as more hitmen show up and storm the police station, wiping out everyone except for Mike and Phoebe who manage to escape once again.

While Mike has no idea what is going on or why he can suddenly morph into a deadly assassin— he fears he’s a robot— we the audience do know because we’ve already met the hot shot CIA department head Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) who’s decided that Mike is a liability to the agency and must be eliminated, a decision which doesn’t sit well with Mike’s handler Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton).  Feeling responsible for Mike, since she’s the woman behind the program which created him, Victoria decides to cross her boss and help Mike elude the CIA assassins assigned to eliminate him.

The rest of the movie follows Mike and Phoebe’s efforts to evade their killers while Mike tries to learn who he is and why he is a killing machine.

The best part of AMERICAN ULTRA is the performances by the two leads, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.  They work really well together, and they are very believable as young lovers caught in a deadly situation.

If you don’t like Eisenberg and his brand of humor, you might not enjoy him as much as I did, but I found him funny throughout.  Of course, we’ve seen him do this same shtick in films like ZOMBIELAND and NOW YOU SEE ME (2013), but I like it.  He’s also believable when he breaks into assassin mode.  As Mike Howell, he’s basically Jason Bourne with a conscience and a sense of humor.

Kristen Stewart is also excellent as Phoebe.  This is the second film in a row in which she impressed me, as I saw her in the Julianne Moore Oscar winning movie STILL ALICE (2014) on Blu-ray recently, where she played Moore’s daughter.  I’m just very happy she’s finally done with the TWILIGHT movies.  She’s so much better when she’s not in those films.

I really enjoyed her here, as she really nails the role of a woman so in love with a guy that she could give a care about his shortcomings.  It was a nice performance to watch, and an easy character to like.  I think of all us would like to have someone like that in our lives, someone who stands by us no matter what.  Stewart also enjoys some memorable comic moments, like when she chastises Mike for some bone-headed moves like pointing out to the man chasing them that he dropped his gun, and also for stopping when one of the assassins pursuing them called his name.

But the high praise for AMERICAN ULTRA stops here, because other than Eisenberg and Stewart, the rest of the film just isn’t as good.  Mind you, it’s not bad, but it’s definitely several notches below where it should be.

For starters, the single biggest thing holding AMERICAN ULTRA back is its story, which unlike the character of Mike Howell, isn’t creative or imaginative.  Mike Howell realizes he’s secretly an assassin, but doesn’t know how or why, and there are dangerous people trying to kill him while he tries to find answers to his situation.  This is basically the same plot as THE BOURNE IDENTITY.

But at least the plot in THE BOURNE IDENTITY was solid.  Here, the answers to Mike’s questions make little sense.  The reason that Mike is being hunted is because CIA agent Adrian Yates played by Topher Grace has decided on his own that Mike is a liability, based only on the fact that Mike is supposed to remain in town yet he constantly tries to leave.  But trying and doing are two separate things, and Mike never leaves, so I don’t see the problem. Anyway Yates basically sends in an entire military unit when his first assassins fail, in effect blowing up whole sections of the town.  He eventually has to quarantine the entire place and come up with a cover story about a pandemic to satisfy the media and the public.  So much for a quiet covert operation.  The whole thing just isn’t credible, and Yates comes off as a complete moron.

It’s as if writer Max Landis, who wrote the screenplay, decided to put Jesse Eisenberg into a Bourne-style plot without coming up with a credible storyline.  Landis also wrote the screenplay for the science fiction film CHRONICLE (2012), a film that was more of a complete package than AMERICAN ULTRA.

One of the reasons AMERICAN ULTRA isn’t a complete package is the story never moves beyond Mike trying to learn his true identity.  The film plays like an origin story, as it simply tells the story of how Mike came to be an assassin.  Forget the origin story already!  How about just throwing these two interesting lead characters into an original creative plot?  It would have been much more exciting watching Eisenberg and Stewart using their talents to do something other than just run away from hit men.

Director Nima Nourizadeh, who also directed the comedy PROJECT X (2012), a film I didn’t like at all, fares better here with AMERICAN ULTRA, although that’s not saying much.  The film is slick and nicely paced, and the action scenes all decent, but things never go as far as they should.  For example, ZOMBIELAND had a crazy frenetic visual style that matched Eisenberg’s humor, with words on the screen and other over-the-top touches.  None of that kind of thing is present here in AMERICAN ULTRA.  For a film like this it’s all rather subdued.

It tries to get violent and earn its R rating, and so there is plenty of blood spilled when bad guys are shot and stabbed, but it’s the type of blood that is CGI-created and exceedingly fake-looking.  It’s reaching the point where the bloodless violence in PG-13 films is starting to be more effective because the blood shown in these R rated movies looks like it belongs in a cartoon.  Go figure.

The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well as Eisenberg and Stewart either.  Topher Grace plays CIA agent turned villain Adrian Yates so over-the-top he’s laughable, and not in a good way. He’s about as effective a villain as Loki in the Marvel movies.  Like Loki, he’s just not on the same level as the heroes which he’s trying to defeat.

While Connie Britton does a nice job as CIA agent Victoria Lasseter who’s sympathetic to Mike’s situation and risks her life and career to help him, she’s still stuck in a ridiculous storyline that is not very believable.  I just never bought what the CIA was doing in this movie.  Sending in a lone sniper or assassin, yeah, I could buy that, but the military?  Of course, Lasseter says pretty much the same thing, which goes back to my point that Yates is a buffoon and an inferior villain not worthy of our main characters’ time.

Bill Pullman shows up near the end as the gruff CIA head honcho who arrives to clean up the entire mess, but like the rest of the CIA plot in this one, he’s over-the-top and pretty much a caricature, and his presence in this movie does little to help it other than to reinforce its poor choice of storytelling.

Walton Goggins is on hand as one of the assassins, a killer named Laugher, because he laughs all the time, and he’s not bad, but we’ve seen him do this sort of thing before, and he’s been better at it, in films like DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and MACHETE KILLS (2013).  For the record, Goggins was also in THE BOURNE IDENTITY.

John Leguizamo plays Mike’s drug supplier Rose, and he’s good for a few laughs, although the role never rises above cliché.  And I thought Stuart Greer was quite good as Sheriff Watts, a character grounded in reality— unlike the CIA folks in this one— who seems to genuinely care for Mike even as he tries to keep him off the streets and in a jail cell.

AMERICAN ULTRA is a one joke move. Let’s put Jesse Eisenberg into a BOURNE style plot and see what happens. Fortunately, it’s a good joke, and Eisenberg is up to the task. He also receives outstanding support from co-star Kristen Stewart who’s every bit his equal in this movie.  Unfortunately, they’re about it, as the rest of the film never quite matches what they bring to the table.

Eisenberg and Stewart play two compelling, enjoyable, and oftentimes humorous characters who deserve to be in a better movie, and if this one does well, perhaps they’ll have their chance in a sequel.  I’d be happy to see them again.  It’s just too bad that the “better movie” didn’t happen the first time.

How much you like this one probably depends on how much you like Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.  I find myself liking them quite a bit these days, and they are the main reason I liked AMERICAN ULTRA.

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