IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963)

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Since Christopher Lee was not interested in playing Dracula again after Hammer Films’ megahit HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), (it would take him a few more years to change his mind) Hammer made a sequel without him, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960), in which Peter Cushing reprised his role as Doctor Van Helsing.

And after the success of THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, Hammer decided to follow it up with another vampire movie, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963), this one without either Lee or Cushing, and without their A-List director, Terence Fisher.  It was directed by Don Sharp.

All this being said, while not as highly regarded as some of Hammer’s best vampire movies, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE is nonetheless a well-made, well-acted, and extremely atmospheric vampire movie.  If not for a poorly conceived and executed conclusion, it would have been even better.

KISS OF THE VAMPIRE opens with a chilling pre-credit sequence which is quintessential Hammer.  As the village priest leads a burial ceremony, complete with grieving townspeople, a man Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans), arrives upon the scene.  Taking a shovel, he drives it into the loose soil of the girl’s grave, causing a fountain of bright red blood to gush from underneath the ground.  Cue James Bernard’s rousing music score.  It’s a perfect beginning to another atmospheric Hammer vampire film.

A young couple Gerald (Edward de Souza) and Marianne Harcourt (Jennifer Daniel) on their honeymoon arrive in a small European village, stranded there temporarily when their car runs out of petrol.  They are invited to the castle overlooking the village, and there they meet their host, Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman) who introduces the couple to his family, which consists of his son and daughter, and he promises to get them some petrol so they can continue their journey.

In the meantime, Dr. Ravna invites Gerald and Marianne to a party at the castle.  It seems like the perfect idea, until Gerald and Marianne realize that their hosts— and in fact all the guests— are vampires!  We’ll take that petrol now, thank you very much!

When Marianne is abducted by this undead family, Gerald turns to the knowledgable Professor Zimmer for help in saving Marianne and destroying the vampires.

KISS OF THE VAMPIRE has a lot of things going for it.  First off, it looks fabulous.  In terms of atmosphere and capturing that whole vampire feel, it’s up there with THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).  Director Don Sharp deserves a lot of credit for the way this one looks.

And while its story is nothing new— young couple runs afoul of a vampire in a remote European village— there are parts of it that are refreshing.  For instance, instead of one vampire, we have a family of vampires, and eventually an entire congregation of vampires.

The Ravna family is charming, hospitable, and friendly.  They don’t seem like vampires at all.  It’s easy to see how Gerald and Marianne let their guard down so easily.  And unlike the traditional black and red garb that Dracula wears, Ravna and his vampires wear white robes.

Producer Anthony Hinds wrote the screenplay under his pen name “John Elder.”  Hinds wrote a lot of Hammer Films, including some of their best, films like THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961), THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964), and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968), to name just a few.  It’s an intriguing screenplay.

There are things, however, that don’t work all that well.

For starters, Noel Willman is no Christopher Lee.  His vampire Dr. Ravna is a little too non-vampiric. He comes off as polite and gentlemanly, with just a touch of vulgarity.  He’s hardly sensual, and the scenes where he commands his vampire women to do his bidding are difficult to believe.  The best part of his performance is it’s easy to believe when village officials refute accusations that he’s a vampire since he’s the area’s most upstanding citizen.  Willman pulls off this side of Ravna’s personality with ease.  The problem is he doesn’t do much with the other side, the darker side.  He’s not much of a vampire.

Barry Warren and Jacquie Wallis are both rather wooden as Ravna’s adult vampire children, Carl and Sabena.  The best vampire performance in the movie belongs to Isobel Black as Tania, one of the village girls held captive by the Ravnas, who is turned into a vampire.  Black’s Tania is sensuous, mesmerizing, and eager to drink blood.

Edward de Souza makes for an amiable hero as Gerald Harcourt, although he does tend to overract a bit at times, something he didn’t do in his earlier Hammer Film appearance, in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962).

Jennifer Daniel is less effective as heroine Marianne Harcourt.  She’s rather blah.

And as the main hero, the eccentric Professor Zimmer, Clifford Evans does an adequate job, although just as Noel Willman is no Christopher Lee, Evans is no Peter Cushing either, and Zimmer is no Van Helsing.  KISS OF THE VAMPIRE definitely misses a strong presence like Cushing or Lee.  But Evans is a very good actor, and in the scenes where Zimmer is not drunk, Evans makes him an effective vampire hunter.

While director Don Sharp makes KISS OF THE VAMPIRE a very atmospheric vampire movie, he doesn’t handle the horror scenes as well.  The scene where Harcourt and Professor Zimmer rescue Marianne from Ravna’s clutches lacks punch, and there really aren’t any memorable shock scenes in this one, other than the pre-credit sequence.

Then there’s the ending.

The conclusion where Professor Zimmer uses a black mass ritual to destroy the vampires was originally conceived for THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).  The vampire in that movie, Baron Meinster, was supposed to have been torn apart by a horde of vampire bats, unleashed by a ritual performed by Dr. Van Helsing, but Peter Cushing balked at this idea, claiming that Van Helsing wouldn’t resort to the dark arts to defeat a vampire, a decision I believe he was spot-on with.

So writer Hinds went with that idea for his ending to KISS OF THE VAMPIRE.  While it’s an intriguing idea, mostly because having bats attack and destroy your vampires is pretty unique when it comes to vampire movie endings, I’m still not sure I understand it. Professor Zimmer says his ritual will in effect turn the forces of darkness on each other, but I’ve never understood why this happens.  What is it that Zimmer does that makes the vampire bats attack the vampires?  Are they confused?  Vengeful that the vampires allowed Zimmer to perform this ritual?  It’s never clearly explained in the movie.

The sequence is ultimately done in by inferior special effects.  The incoming swarm of vampire bats descending upon the Ravna castle is filmed with cheap animation, looking like the bats in SCOOBY DOO cartoons.

The bats inside the castle look just as fake and don’t look any better than the bats used in the old Universal Dracula movies.  In fact, in color, they actually look a bit worse.

As such, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE has never been one of my favorite Hammer movies.  It’s not bad, but it lacks the sensuality and horror usually associated with the best of the Hammer vampire flicks.

Then again, if the vampiric Tania were to show up at your bedroom window in the dead of night, I doubt you’d be able to turn her away.  In fact, I’d wager to guess you’d be powerless to prevent her from giving you the KISS OF THE VAMPIRE.

Wild garlic, anyone?

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972)

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For a monster born more than 50 years ago, Godzilla may be more relevant now than ever before.

The movies just keep on coming.  The latest Godzilla movie arrived last year with SHIN GODZILLA (2016) to a limited release here in the U.S., and it received some pretty good reviews.  And there is another film in the works, GODZILLA:  KING OF MONSTERS, due out in 2019, from the same folks who made the Bryan Cranston GODZILLA (2014).  All told, there have been 31 Godzilla movies to date, and it doesn’t look like they’re stopping any time soon.

But today’s movie comes from that time when Godzilla was a silly monster superhero, constantly saving the world from the evil and bad monsters.  Silly stuff for sure, but also the type of Godzilla movie that a lot of us grew up with.

Today IN THE SPOOKLIGHT it’s one of my favorite Godzilla movies from the 1970s, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972).

This one sat on the shelf for a few years before being released in the U.S. in 1978 with the title GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND.  It was supposed to be a return to the traditional Godzilla format, after the offbeat message-driven GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971),  a film I did not enjoy as a kid, but it’s one that has definitely grown on me over the years.

In GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, aliens from outer space are once again trying to take over the Earth, and they employ space monsters Gigan and King Ghidorah to help them.  To defend the Earth, humankind turns to their giant monster friends Godzilla and Anguirus for help.

And defend the Earth they do, in one of the series’ better and longer climactic monster bashes.  And there you have it.  That’s pretty much GODZILLA VS. GIGAN in a nutshell.  What did you expect?  Shakespeare?

I find GODZILLA VS. GIGAN particularly enjoyable for two reasons.  The biggest reason is the aforementioned climactic battle.  It’s one of the best in the series.  That being said, in terms of monsters, this one gets off to a slow start, and it seemingly takes forever for Godzilla and Anguirus to show up, but once they do, nearly the final third of the movie is one long and rather exciting giant monster bout.

The other fun thing about GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is its human characters.  While the space villains are your typical bad guy types, the heroes in this one seem to have stepped out of a Scooby Doo cartoon.  They’re young and they’re hip.  Groovy, man!  We have a young cartoonist who draws monsters, a young woman looking for her kidnapped brother, and her male friend, a classic hippie who can’t seem to stop eating corn on the cob.  I guess Scooby snacks weren’t available. These three provide lots of light-hearted fun during the people parts of this monster flick.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is also the film famous for being the movie where Godzilla actually talks!  Yep, words come out of Godzilla’s mouth as he talks to his buddy Anguirus. It’s a ridiculously silly scene, and Godzilla and Anguirus sound like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo.  It’s awful.

The good news is, we live in the age of DVDs and Blu-ray, and these discs often include the original Japanese versions as well.  So, you can watch the original Japanese version in which Godzilla and Anguirus do not talk.  Oh, they communicate, but through sounds rather than words, and it’s very obvious that they are communicating.  Unfortunately, the American distributors didn’t think their Godzilla audiences were intelligent enough to figure this out, and so they added the ridiculous English language dubbing.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN was directed by Jun Fukuda, no stranger to the Godzilla franchise, as he directed five movies in the series. In addition to GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966), SON OF GODZILLA (1967), GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974) were all helmed by Fukuda.

Shin’ichi Sekizawa wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Takeshi Kimura. Kimura wrote the screenplays to some of my favorite Toho movies, including RODAN (1956), THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966), and KING KONG ESCAPES (1967).

Are there better Godzilla movies?  Certainly!  But in terms of fun Godzilla movies, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN ranks near the top.

Of course, the big question for Godzilla fans is, how does Godzilla fare in this one?  Well, truth be told, it’s not one of the big guy’s better performances.  The costume looks rather silly here, and it does take Godzilla forever to finally show up and take on Gigan and King Ghidorah.  There really isn’t a good balance here of Godzilla scenes.  It’s pretty much all or nothing, with the “all” coming in the film’s final  30 minutes or so.  But the climactic battle is worth the wait.

Plus, Godzilla’s goofy appearance kinda fits in with the rest of the movie, a 1970s romp.  You almost expect to see Cheech and Chong show up.  It would actually make a nice companion piece with Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972).

Want a cure for the winter blues?  Watch GODZILLA VS. GIGAN and see Godzilla and Anguirus take on Gigan and King Ghidorah in an all-out monster bash.  It’s a sure-fire way to smash out the cold weather doldrums.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: COUNT DRACULA (1977)

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Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on the BBC production of COUNT DRACULA (1977) starring Louis Jordan as Dracula.  This column is currently published in the June 2015 edition of the HWA NEWSLETTER.

Enjoy!

—Michael

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHTCount Dracula poster

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

I first crossed paths with COUNT DRACULA (1977), the BBC production of the Bram Stoker tale, starring Louis Jordan as Dracula, when I was in high school and it was shown on PBS.  I was immediately drawn to this version, which impressed me, a Hammer Dracula fan, to no end.  In short, I loved it.  PBS played it multiple times, and I think I watched it each time.

I recently bought COUNT DRACULA on DVD, and after not having seen this movie in nearly 40 years, I got to enjoy it once again.

Jonathan Harker (Bosco Hogan) travels to Transylvania to conduct business with Count Dracula (Louis Jordan), arranging the sale of the Carfax Abbey estate back in England.  But Dracula has an agenda of his own, and in this film it’s all about his traveling to England to seek out new disciples, which he does after making Harker a prisoner in his castle.

In England, Dracula puts the bite on Lucy (Susan Penhaligon), the sister of Harker’s fiancé Mina (Judi Bowker).  Lucy’s good friend and suitor Dr. John Seward (Mark Burns) is stumped by Lucy’s illness.  He calls in his friend from Amsterdam, Professor Van Helsing (Frank Finlay), and it’s Van Helsing who makes the connection between Lucy’s condition and vampirism.

But Van Helsing is too late to save Lucy, and soon Dracula sets his fangs— er, sights on Mina.  Van Helsing realizes that Dracula is the vampire they are seeking, and he assembles a team consisting of Seward, Jonathan Harker, who has since escaped from Castle Dracula and made his way home, Lucy’s American fiancé, Quincy Holmwood (Richard Barnes), and Mina herself to hunt down and destroy Dracula.

There’s a lot to like about COUNT DRACULA, and my favorite part is that of all the Dracula movies I’ve ever seen, it comes the closest to capturing the mood and flavor of the Bram Stoker novel.  There is a strong literary feel throughout, due mostly to the well-written script by Gerald Savory.

Is it my favorite Dracula movie of all time?  No, but it does place in the top three for me, trailing only Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and Bela Lugosi’s DRACULA (1931).  That’s how good it is!

And as much as it captures the essence of Stoker’s novel, it’s not completely faithful to the book.  There are some changes. For example, the characters of Arthur Holmwood and Quincy Morris are condensed into one, Quincy Holmwood.  Dracula is an old man at the beginning of the novel and gets younger as the story goes along.  In COUNT DRACULA he remains the same age.  And the person who drives the stake through Drac’s heart at the end of the story is also changed.

The cast is excellent.  Louis Jordan puts his own personal stamp on the role of Dracula, and his performance steers away from both that of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee.  He comes off as the thinking man’s Dracula, and he makes for a deliciously cold and powerful undead Count.    He’s cool, relaxed, and supremely confident.

Louis Jordan, the thinking man's Dracula.

Louis Jordan, the thinking man’s Dracula.

Jordan’s Dracula argues that he’s not evil at all.  He rationalizes his behavior, claiming he’s no different than humans except they eat meat and he drinks blood to survive.  It makes him an emotionless, calculating predator.  I prefer Jordan over two other movie Draculas, Frank Langella and Gary Oldman.

While my favorite movie Van Helsing is of course Peter Cushing, I really like Frank Finlay as Professor Van Helsing here.  His Van Helsing comes closest to the way Stoker wrote the character. As much as I like Edward Van Sloan in the Bela Lugosi DRACULA, his Van Helsing was both modernized and Americanized for 1930s movie audiences.  I was never much of a fan of Laurence Olivier’s interpretation of Van Helsing in DRACULA (1979), and Anthony Hopkins in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) played him like a crazy person.  While I love Cushing as Van Helsing, his take on the character in the Hammer Draculas was completely his own, turning him into a younger, more athletic “doctor” rather than a wise, elderly professor.

Frank Finlay is masterful as Professor Van Helsing.

Frank Finlay is masterful as Professor Van Helsing.

Frank Finlay nails the Bram Stoker version of the Van Helsing character here in COUNT DRACULA.  He’s wily and witty, super intelligent, resourceful, and most of all he’s fearless.  He’s the perfect man to lead the charge against Dracula.

Judi Bowker is also excellent as Mina.  She’s vulnerable yet strong, and she often possesses more strength and gumption than her husband Jonathan.  I like Helen Chandler as Mina in DRACULA (1931) a lot, Melissa Stribling in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) is okay, Kate Nelligan in DRACULA (1979) is very good, and Winona Ryder in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) I always found underwhelming.  Judi Bowker is better than them all. She also starred in the original CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981).

The beautiful Judi Bowker is one of the screen's best Minas.

The beautiful Judi Bowker is one of the screen’s best Minas.

Jack Shepherd makes for a very effective Renfield.  Dwight Frye from Lugosi’s DRACULA remains the definitive Renfield, but Shepherd is just as good if not better than the string of Renfields who have appeared in Dracula movies since.

Bosco Hogan is convincing as the victimized and often confused and frightened Jonathan Harker, and he’s believable when he makes the transition to a braver man towards end of the film.  Mark Burns is fine as Dr. Seward, and Susan Penhaligon is very good as Lucy.  Only Richard Barnes misses the mark somewhat, as he tends to overact as Texan Quincy Holmwood.

There are plenty of memorable scenes in COUNT DRACULA, directed by Philip Saville.

The scene where Dracula supplies his brides with a bag full of babies- a scene that comes directly from the novel— is as chilling today as it was back in 1977.  When Professor Van Helsing and Mina are surrounded by Dracula’s vampire brides, and Van Helsing has to protect Mina, it’s one of the film’s finer moments.

Other memorable scenes include Mina’s interview with Renfield, the confrontation at Carfax Abbey where Dracula challenges Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker, and Dracula’s nighttime visits with Lucy.  The early scenes at Castle Dracula are also very effective.

The location shooting also helps this film, as it gives it a local flavor that brings Transylvania to life.  And it has a haunting music score by Kenyon Emrys-Roberts.

COUNT DRACULA is one of the finest film versions of Bram Stoker’s iconic novel.  Short of reading the book, you won’t find a more authentic rendition.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994)

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mary_shelleys_frankenstein_ posterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Kenneth Branagh/Robert De Niro flick, MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994), published in the September 2014 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.

And remember, if you like this column, my book IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 horror movie columns, is available from NECON EBooks as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.  You can also buy print copies directly from me right here through this blog.  Just leave an inquiry in the comment section.  Thanks!

—Michael

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

Few horror films have disappointed me more than MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994).

I remember being so excited when I first heard about it.  It was to star two of my favorite actors, Kenneth Branagh as Victor Frankenstein, and Robert De Niro as the Monster.  And it was being produced by Francis Ford Coppola.  What could possibly go wrong?

Evidently quite a lot.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN attempts to be a faithful film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.  For the most part, it is, in that it covers the events in the novel, but where the film falters is in its execution.  The scenes of horror in this movie just don’t have the relevance or the potency they should.

As much as I like Kenneth Branagh as a director, and as much as I find his Shakespeare films absolutely brilliant, he dropped the ball here with FRANKENSTEIN.  The first problem I have with Branagh’s direction in this movie is his use of the camera.  I think Branagh drank an entire pot of coffee before filming the scenes in this one.  There is an incredible amount of camera movement, so much so, it’s exhausting to watch.  And like bad acting, it’s also very noticeable.

Take the creation scene for example.  A shirtless Victor Frankenstein runs through his enormous lab, switching on this and that, and the camera races along with him every step of the way.  It’s such an overblown overdramatic sequence, and it’s all so unnecessary.  How about just flicking a switch?

The opening half hour of the movie is poorly paced, and it’s very choppy rather than smooth and elegant.  The scenes of Victor with his family are incredibly dull and boring, and later when he goes off to medical school and becomes interested in creating life, there’s very little drama or intrigue about it.  That’s the problem with the entire first half of the movie:  there’s no sense of dread, mystery, or horror.  It plays like a straight period piece drama, with little or no horror elements to be found.

Things get a little better once the Monster appears, but even this part of the film doesn’t really work. The film never becomes scary, and as a result, all the overdramatic scenes fall flat because characters are reacting to things which should be awful, but in the film aren’t properly portrayed as such.

For instance, housekeeper Justine Moritz is wrongly blamed for the murder of Victor’s younger brother when the Monster plants false evidence on her, and she is ultimately executed for a crime she did not commit.  This is a horrible tragic point in the story, but in this movie, it all takes place in a matter of minutes.  Justine is accused, and the next thing we know she’s being dragged to her death by an angry mob.  We see Victor and Elizabeth reacting to the horror, but the scene is so rushed and overemotional it lacks effect.

The screenplay by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont (of WALKING DEAD fame) is okay.  It does tell the Frankenstein story, and it does give the Monster some decent lines, especially when he wonders about his existence, but it never delves as deeply into the tale as it could have done.

We get a fleeting sense of why Victor wants to create life— he’s heartbroken over the death of his mother— but we never see him brood about this or exhibit passion about destroying death once and for all.  The Monster questions his existence, but his inquiries are brief and superficial.

The acting is decent.  Kenneth Branagh really isn’t bad as Victor Frankenstein, and each time I see this film, I enjoy his performance, but he’s stuck in a movie that doesn’t utilize him to his full potential.  I want to see Branagh’s Victor passionate about creating life, and then horrified to have to deal with his monstrous creation.  This doesn’t really happen in this movie.

Robert De Niro remains an odd choice to play the Monster.  It’s like casting James Cagney instead of Karloff as the Monster in the 1931 film.  De Niro is okay, but he’s just too De Niro-ish.  I watch this movie and I see Robert De Niro, not the Monster.  I also don’t like the look of the Monster in this movie.  The make-up job here did not impress me very much.

Helena Bonham Carter is fine as Elizabeth, and that’s one part of this movie that does work:  the love story between Victor and Elizabeth.  Tom Hulce as Henry Clerval, Ian Holm as Victor’s father, and John Cleese as Professor Waldman are all pretty much wasted in under written roles and they offer little if anything to this movie.  Then there’s Aidan Quinn, as Captain Robert Walton, stuck in a wraparound story which goes nowhere.

If you want to see a more faithful adaptation of the Frankenstein tale, check out the 2004 version of FRANKENSTEIN starring Alec Newman as Victor Frankenstein and Luke Goss as the Creature.  This TV miniseries is actually quite well-done

And while it’s not really a faithful retelling of Mary Shelley’s tale, the 1970s TV movie FRANKENSTEIN:  THE TRUE STORY (1973) starring Leonard Whiting as Victor Frankenstein and Michael Sarrazin as the Creature does a better job than Branagh’s film of framing a horror story within a classy production.  Branagh scores high on the classy but stumbles with the horror.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN also has an ineffective music score by Patrick Doyle.  It’s overdramatic and used in all the wrong places.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN has handsome production values and A-list actors, but it fails to generate suspense, fails to tell its remarkable story, and most importantly, fails to capture the horror of what it must have been like for all of these characters, the Monster included, to live through this tale of a man who created a being and then abandoned him, and how this creation used his phenomenal strength to seek bloodthirsty vengeance against his creator and his family.  This brutal and fascinating story is pretty much glossed over superficially and melodramatically, which is sad because MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN should have been the remake Frankenstein fans had been waiting for.

Instead, it only made us appreciate the Universal and Hammer versions all the more.

 

—END—

 

 

 

SECOND LOOK: LES MISERABLES (2012)

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les-mis-posterSECOND LOOK:  LES MISERABLES (2012)

By Michael Arruda

 

 

I was pretty tough on LES MISERABLES (2013) when I reviewed it last year for this blog.  I think my title was, LES MISFIRE?

 

To be fair, I didn’t dislike LES MISERABLES when I saw it in the theater.  I simply was disappointed it wasn’t better, and I think it came across in my review that I wasn’t all that crazy about it. 

 

Anyway, I saw it again recently on DVD, and I have to say, I did enjoy it better the second time around.

 

While my biggest criticisms remain the same- that the film seemed to lack a soul, that it came off as completely gloomy and dark with the theme of redemption noticeably absent, and that the pacing seemed off, in that things moved too quickly without natural breaks in between scenes and songs, I did appreciate more about the film the second time around.  I even found Russell Crowe’s singing somewhat more tolerable.

 

I love the stage musical LES MISERABLES, and I suppose any film version wouldn’t be able to match the spectacle of how it plays on the stage.  This film version by director Tom Hooper didn’t even seem to try.  It dove right into a brutal realism that somehow didn’t work as well as it should have.  I mean, both Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway looked phenomenal in their misery, but this gritty heavy realism came off as too dark for the bulk of the movie and detracted from the musical numbers.  It’s a case where Jean Valjean and Fantine looked so beaten and emaciated that it was difficult at times to suspend disbelief and accept them breaking into song.  The realism also made for some harsh musical numbers. 

 

I still thoroughly enjoyed Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Jean Valjean, and Anne Hathaway as Fantine.  Both their acting performances and singing voices were amazing.  Russell Crowe, on the other hand, was a different story.  I found his voice grating when I saw the movie the first time.  I found it slightly less harsh this time around.  I also enjoyed Crowe’s performance as Javert better the second time around and found him to be a much more dominant character than when I saw it the first time. 

 

I still was not wowed by Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, which still surprises me, since usually I enjoy her a lot.  And although his singing voice was among the best in the movie, Eddie Redmayne didn’t blow me out of the water as Marius either.

 

And the pacing of the film definitely slows down during the third act.

 

Yet, the film looked just as amazing on DVD as it did on the big screen.  Not much was lost in terms of picture quality.

 

Parts of the story also worked better for me the second time.  The blockade sequence near the end I thought fell flat on the big screen.  I found it more compelling this time around.  I remember growing restless in the theater at this point in the movie, and this wasn’t a problem in the comfort of my living room.  The chase storyline between Jean Valjean and Javert also played better at home, perhaps because of the intimacy of the smaller screen.

 

So, is LES MISERABLES worth your time on DVD? 

 

Well, it certainly provides grand entertainment, and it does a pretty nice job bringing the musical to life.  It remains to be seen whether or not making it darker, grittier, and more depressing than the stage musical was a good idea.  I wasn’t nuts about this interpretation, mostly because the sense of hope found throughout the musical seems to be lost here.  But this wasn’t enough to ruin the movie for me.

 

And with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway leading the way, and Russell Crowe doing the same, especially when he’s not singing, the cast also excels. While I do have a problem with the dark take this movie has on the story, I have to admit that I appreciated its dramatic elements better the second time around.

 

LES MISERABLES, the 2012 movie version, in spite of its flaws, is still an engaging musical and certainly worth a look.

 

—END—

 

 

The Value of Friendship on Display in THE INTOUCHABLES (2011)

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the-intouchables-posterDVD Review:  THE INTOUCHABLES (2011)

By

Michael Arruda

THE INTOUCHABLES (2011), a French film written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, is a movie about friendship, and it’s this uncharacteristic relationship between a quadriplegic and his caregiver that makes this film rewarding.

Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is a quadriplegic millionaire, paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a paragliding accident.  Driss (Omar Sy) is a bitter young man of African descent who’s content to collect unemployment benefits.  When he arrives at the job interview for Philippe’s caregiver, he quickly announces that he’s only interested in obtaining a signature to prove he is actively looking for a job so he can collect his unemployment check.

In his present condition, Philippe is completely bored with his life.  His only contacts are with his beautiful assistant Magalie (Audrey Fleurot) and his aide Yvonne (Anne Le Ny), and they have fallen into the same rut as Philippe.  When Driss bursts into the interview, relaxed and full of spirit, flirting with Magalie, since he has no interest whatsoever in the position, his refreshing off the cuff attitude strikes a chord in Philippe.

To Driss’ surprise, he is hired to be Philippe’s caregiver on a trial basis.  He says yes when he sees the rich plush conditions of the home in which he’ll be living.  At first, Driss resists some of the duties, as he balks at helping Philippe with his bathroom needs and personal hygiene.  But Driss can’t help being drawn into conversations with Philippe, as Philippe finds in Driss a refreshing alternative to his usual caregivers.  Driss does not treat him with pity or extra compassion, but talks to him like he’s just one of the guys.

It’s the core of this friendship that drives this movie along.  As the two men grow closer, they begin to share more intimacies about their lives.  For example, in one of the movie’s funniest scenes, Driss asks Philippe if he can still make it with a woman, and Philippe tells him that he can’t in the traditional way since he’s paralyzed from the neck down.  But, Philippe adds, the body has other erogenous zones, like the ears.  Philippe adds with a laugh, “and I have two of them!”

Philippe also confides in Driss about a love letter relationship he has with a woman named Eleonore, who he has never met.  Driss encourages him to take the relationship to the next level and meet her in person, something that so far Philippe has been too anxious to do.

When Philippe learns that Driss paints, he goes out of his way to find a buyer who might be interested in the young man’s work.

THE INTOUCHABLES tells a story about a unique friendship, a quadriplegic and his caregiver, but it’s the value of friendship, the way these two men get to know each other and like each other, that makes this story so enjoyable.

This friendship also extends to Driss and Philippe’s staff, especially Magalie and Yvonne.  Driss’ personality is infectious, and he livens up the entire household.  Driss and the older Yvonne share a sincere camaraderie, and it’s through his conversations with her that he learns a lot about both Driss and the household in general.

His relationship with Magalie is quite the different story.  Driss is constantly flirting with her, and he can’t understand why she rebuffs his advances.  During one scene, for instance, he invites her to take a bath with him in his elegant bathtub, and to his shock, she says yes, and starts to unbutton her blouse.  As Driss undresses, she laughs and leaves.  When Driss finally learns why she’s never been interested in him, it’s one of the more memorable parts of the movie.

The cast is flawless, driven of course by the two leads.  Francois Cluzet is solid and earnest as Philippe.  He comes off as a man trying to get on with his life in spite of his devastating accident.  He accepts his condition and wants no sympathy.  He simply desires to continue living, and Driss provides the spark which enables him to do this.

Omar Sy is excellent as Driss, and he gives the best performance in the film.  Sy makes Driss such a lively, genuine, and ultimately very real person that you can’t help but like him.  He made me completely understand and believe why Philippe was so taken with him.

Audrey Fleurot is alternately sexy and icy cold as Magalie, and I completely bought into Driss’ fascination with her, and Anne Le Ny is sweet and affable as Yvonne.

The meaning of the title THE INTOUCHABLES is open to debate, since it’s not mentioned in the movie, nor are there any clear references to the term.  Before seeing the movie, I immediately thought of the lowly untouchables of India’s caste system, a group of people born into poverty and cruelly and unfairly shunned by the rest of society.  I thought the term perhaps was going to refer to Driss, as seen through the eyes of Philippe, but Philippe is no racist, and he never treats Driss as an inferior person.

I believe the title refers to the fact that the friendship between Philippe and Driss is pure, that it’s above reproach, untouchable by those who question it or think less of it.  For instance, at one point in the movie Philippe’s attorney warns him about hiring Driss because of his questionable background, but Philippe rejects this advice and tells his attorney that he doesn’t care about the man’s past.

THE INTOUCHABLES is a subtle heartwarming movie that tells a sincere and very likeable story.  In this day and age in which people seem to be drifting more and more into lives of social isolation, communicating through the internet and social media as opposed to face to face interactions, its story of an unconventional friendship between two men is both satisfying and reassuring, in that the need for human contact and the respect, camaraderie, and dignity that goes along with it is a life-giving necessity.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

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Dracula Has Risen From The Grave - posterThis reprint of a column which originally ran in the HWA Newsletter in February 2008 on the third Christopher Lee Hammer Dracula flick, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) is up now in the current February 2014 edition of the HWA Newsletter.

And don’t forget, my book IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 horror movie columns, is available from NECON EBooks as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

  IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

            Have you heard the news? 

            Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.

            I love that title.

            DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968), Hammer Films’ third entry in their famous Dracula series, was so successful at the box office, it sent Hammer on a crazed vampire movie spree between 1968 -1973 where they made an unprecedented 11 vampire films in five years, including four more Dracula films with Christopher Lee, three vampire movies with Peter Cushing, including TWINS OF EVIL (1971) and THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1973), and four without either star, including the very popular CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER (1973).

            Vampires never had it so good.

            DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE is a revenge tale, as most of the Hammer Draculas were.  Seems Drac had nothing better to do than get back at people.  You’d think that a guy who was immortal— well, anyway.  A monsignor (Rupert Davies) and a village priest (Ewan Hooper) attempt to stamp out the evil of Count Dracula once and for all by reading a prayer of exorcism and sealing the castle door with a cross.  The cowardly village priest flees in fright but slips and falls, smashing his head on some ice.  Underneath this ice rests Dracula (Christopher Lee), frozen there since the end of the previous installment in the series, DRACULA- PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).  Blood seeps through the ice onto Dracula’s lips, reviving him, and presto!  The count has risen from his icy grave!

            Dracula makes the priest his slave and vows revenge against the monsignor for placing the cross on his castle door.  Of course, one wonders why Dracula just doesn’t order his new slave to take down the cross himself.  It would have saved him a heck of a lot of trouble!

            Lucky for Dracula, the monsignor has a beautiful niece, Maria (Veronica Carlson) and so the Count gets to throw in a few hickeys as part of his revenge plot.  It’s up to the monsignor and Maria’s atheist boyfriend Paul (Barry Andrews) to save the day. 

            DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE actually has a better than average script, so screenwriter John Elder deserves credit for penning a very enjoyable story, with very likeable characters.

            Director Freddie Francis scores well here.  It may be his best directing effort for Hammer.  He crafts several exciting scenes, including not one but two rooftop chases, and an extremely memorable “stake in the heart” sequence in which Dracula actually rips the stake from his own heart. I told you it was memorable.

            The performances are all first-rate.  Character actor Michael Ripper delivers one of his best performances, as Max, the baker and tavern owner.  Say what you want about Christopher Lee, today famous more for his longevity than for his acting ability, but he makes a terrific Dracula.  You cannot take that away from him, and with another actor in the role, the Hammer Dracula films just wouldn’t have been as good.  Lee captures the essence of undead evil in a way that causes you to remember his performance long after you’ve seen it.

            DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE also boasts amazing sets.  They look like they’re from a major Hollywood studio. 

            DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE is a keeper, a natural crowd pleaser. 

From its opening moments with a bloody corpse stuffed inside a church bell, to its bloody finale outside Castle Dracula, it won’t let you down. 

            But a word of warning- this winter, watch your step on the ice.  Should you slip and fall, you-know-who might be resting underneath.

—END—