THE HORROR JAR: THE UNIVERSAL MUMMY SERIES

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Boris Karloff as Im Ho Tep/The Mummy in THE MUMMY (1932).

 

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at odds and ends pertaining to horror movies.

Up today it’s the Universal MUMMY series. Never as popular as Universal’s other monsters- Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man— the Mummy nonetheless appeared in five Universal horror movies and one comedy starring Abbott and Costello. As such, the Universal Mummy movies are significant. In fact, one of the Mummy movies, the first one, THE MUMMY (1932) ranks as one of the best Universal monster films ever made.

So, let’s get to it. Here’s a look at the Universal MUMMY movies:

 

1. THE MUMMY (1932)

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Im Ho Tep (Boris Karloff) reveals his secret to Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) in THE MUMMY (1932).

 

73 minutes; Directed by Karl Freund; Screenplay by John L. Balderston, based on a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam, and a story by Richard Schayer; Imhotep/Mummy: Boris Karloff

As I said, THE MUMMY, Universal’s first Mummy movie, is one of the finest Universal monster movies ever made. There are a couple of reasons for this. The number one reason, really, is director Karl Freund.

Freund, a well-respected cinematographer, was in charge of the cinematography in DRACULA (1931). His work here as the director of THE MUMMY, with its innovative camerawork and masterful use of light and shadows, is superior to the directorial efforts of both Tod Browning on DRACULA (1931) and James Whale on FRANKENSTEIN (1931). The only stumbling block by Freund is the ending, as the film’s conclusion is choppy and inferior to the rest of the movie.

The other reason is Boris Karloff’s performance as Im Ho Tep, the Mummy. Unlike subsequent Mummy movies, in which the monster remained in bandages, here, Im Ho Tep sheds his bandages and becomes a threat quite unlike later Mummy interpretations. Karloff of course is famous for his portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster, and rightly so, but his performance here as Im Ho Tep is one of his best.

The story in THE MUMMY is quite similar to the story told in DRACULA, which is no surprise since it was written by John L.Balderston, who had written one of the DRACULA plays on which the 1931 movie was based. In fact, it’s THE MUMMY with its story of reincarnated love which later versions of DRACULA borrowed heavily from, films like Dan Curtis’ DRACULA (1974) starring Jack Palance, and Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992), both of which featured love stories between Dracula and Mina, a love story that did not appear in Stoker’s novel or the 1931 Bela Lugosi film. But it does appear here in THE MUMMY (1932).

And unlike DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY was not based on a literary work but was instead inspired by the events surrounding the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1925.

THE MUMMY also features superior make-up by Jack Pierce, the man also responsible for the make-up on Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster and on Lon Chaney Jr.s’ Wolf Man. The Im Ho Tep make-up is creepy and chilling.

THE MUMMY contains frightening scenes, like when the Mummy is first resurrected by the young man reading from the Scroll of Thoth. The soundtrack is silent as the Mummy’s hand slowly enters the frame and grabs the scroll from the desk.

THE MUMMY also has a nice cast. In addition to Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan is on hand as the Van Helsing-like Doctor Muller, David Manners plays dashing Frank Whemple, and the very sexy Zita Johann plays Helen Grosvenor, Im Ho Tep’s reincarnated love.

One of Universal’s best horror movies, THE MUMMY is not to be missed.

 

2. THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940)

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Kharis (Tom Tyler) attacks hero Steve Banning (Dick Foran) in THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940).

 

67 minutes; Directed by Christy Cabanne; Screenplay by Griffin Jay; Kharis/The Mummy: Tom Tyler

Universal’s second MUMMY movie was not a direct sequel to THE MUMMY (1932). Instead, it told a brand new story with a brand new Mummy. It also took on a completely different tone. Rather than being eerie and frightening, THE MUMMY’S HAND is light and comical, with the emphasis on adventure rather than horror. The Brendan Frasier MUMMY movies from the late 1990s-early 2000s borrowed heavily from the style of THE MUMMY’S HAND.

THE MUMMY’S HAND follows two adventurous American archeologists in Egypt, Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford) as they seek the tomb of the Princess Ananka. They are joined by a magician Solvani (Cecil Kelloway) and his daughter Marta (Peggy Moran) who agree to fund the expedition. They run afoul of the evil high priest Andoheb (George Zucco) who unleashes the deadly Mummy Kharis (Tom Tyler) on them in order to prevent them from stealing from the tomb of the princess.

Kharis the Mummy is the first of what would become the classic interpretation of the Mummy in the movies: the slow-moving mute monster wrapped in bandages, a far cry from Karloff’s superior interpretation in THE MUMMY, but it’s the one that caught on. People simply love monsters, and Kharis is more a movie monster than Im Ho Tep. Kharis is also mute since in this story when he was buried alive, his tongue was cut. Ouch!

Jack Pierce again did the Mummy make-up, and it’s not bad,  I prefer the Im Ho Tep make-up much better.

Tom Tyler is average at best as the Mummy. Any stunt man could have done the same. He doesn’t really bring much to the performance, and for me, Kharis the Mummy is a weak link in this film.

The highlight of THE MUMMY’S HAND is the comical banter between Dick Foran and Wallace Ford. They’re amusing and highly entertaining.

Other than THE MUMMY, THE MUMMY’S HAND is the only other of the Universal Mummy series that received critical praise. I like THE MUMMY’S HAND well enough, but I actually prefer the next film in the series better, and that’s because Lon Chaney Jr. joined the series as Kharis, and would play the Mummy in the next three films.

 

3. THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942)

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Lon Chaney Jr. takes over the role of Kharis, the Mummy, in THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942).

 

61 minutes; Directed by Harold Young; Screenplay by Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney, Jr.

THE MUMMY’S TOMB is a direct sequel to THE MUMMY’S HAND. In fact, the first ten minutes of the film recap the events from THE MUMMY’S HAND. The story takes place thirty years later, and Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) is retired in Massachusetts, enjoying time spent with his adult son John (John Hubbard) and his son’s fiance Isobel (Elyse Knox).

All is well until the nefarious Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) arrives in town with Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) to finish the job of punishing those who raided Princess Ananka’s tomb.

The story here is pretty standard, as are the production values. The Mummy series at this point had definitely entered the world of the 1940s movie serials. Everything about this movie and the next two are quick and cheap. Yet—.

Yet— I really like THE MUMMY’S TOMB, and other than THE MUMMY (1932), it’s my favorite of the Universal Mummy movies. The number one reason is Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Kharis. Say what you want about Chaney, as the years go by, his reputation as an actor continues to grow. Back in the day, he received well-deserved praise for his portrayal of Larry Talbot aka The Wolf Man, but that was about it. His other portrayals in horror movies were often dismissed. Not so anymore.

He brings some character to Kharis and imbues life into the monster. He’s been criticized for being too heavy to portray an Egyptian mummy, but you know what? His considerable bulk— not fat, mind you, but solid bulk— is quite frightening! And that’s my favorite part about THE MUMMY’S TOMB: Kharis, in spite of the fact that he might lose a foot race to Michael Myers— it would be close!—is damned scary! Sure, you might outrun him, but if he gets you in a corner, it’s over! Jack Pierce’s make-up here on Kharis is also my favorite of the entire series.

Speaking of best of the series, THE MUMMY’S TOMB has, not only the best ending in the entire Universal series, but I’d argue it has the best ending of any Mummy movie period! Sure, its torch-wielding villagers which chase Kharis borrows heavily from FRANKENSTEIN (1931)— in fact, some of the same footage was used— but once the action reaches the house, and the subsequent chase inside the house, that stuff is all tremendously exciting and well-done.

On the other hand, since this story takes place thirty years after the events of THE MUMMY’S HAND, it should be set in 1970, but in the timeless world of Universal classic horror, the action is still occurring in the 1940s. I won’t say anything if you won’t.

 

4. THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944)

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Kharis (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is back at it again in THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944).

 

61 minutes;  Directed by Reginald Le Borg; Screenplay by Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher, and Brenda Weisberg; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney Jr.

THE MUMMY’S GHOST is my least favorite film in the series, other than the Abbott and Costello film. A direct sequel to THE MUMMY’S TOMB, Yousef Bey (John Carradine) arrives in Massachusetts to reclaim the bodies of Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Princess Ananka. When Kharis turns out to be still alive, and the Princess reincarnated in the body of a college student Amina (Ramsay Ames), Bey feels as if he’s hit the lottery. He decides to make Amina his bride, which doesn’t sit well with Kharis, since after all Amina/Ananka was his girlfriend back in the day!

The reason I’m not crazy about THE MUMMY’S GHOST is that it doesn’t really offer anything new. It’s just kind of there, going through the motions. Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Kharis isn’t as effective here as it was in THE MUMMY’S TOMB, nor is Jack Pierce’s make-up. The use of a Mummy mask on Chaney rather than make-up is much more prominent here.

Even the presence of John Carradine, Robert Lowery who would go on to play Batman a few years later in the serial BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949), and KING KONG’s Frank Reicher doesn’t help. I like the return to the reincarnated lover plot point, but even that doesn’t really lift this one, as that plot element was handled much better and with more conviction in THE MUMMY.

 

5. THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944)

Mummys-Curse

Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) on the prowl in the swamps of Louisiana in THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944).

 

60 minutes; Directed by Leslie Goodwins; Screenplay by Bernard Schubert; Kharis/The Mummy: Lon Chaney Jr.

Inexplicably, Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Princess Ananka are now located in Louisiana, having somehow moved there from Massachusetts! The story here in THE MUMMY’S CURSE is pretty much nonexistent. It’s pretty much just an excuse to feature Kharis the Mummy stalking the swamps of Lousiana.

But that’s the reason THE MUMMY’S CURSE is superior to the previous installment, THE MUMMY’S GHOST. Lon Chaney Jr. returns to frightening form, and watching Kharis terrorize the bayous of Louisiana is pretty chilling. THE MUMMY’S CURSE is chock full of atmosphere and eerieness, in spite of not having much of a story. As such, I always seem to enjoy watching this one.

 

6. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955)

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Bud and Lou want their Mummy in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955).

 

79 minutes; Directed by Charles Lamont; Screenplay by John Grant; Klaris/The Mummy: Eddie Parker.

After the success of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), one of the best horror comedies ever made, the comedy duo of But Abbott and Lou Costello met some other monsters as well, in such movies as ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN (1951), ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1953), and they would meet their final monster in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955).

While Abbott and Costello are almost always good for a decent laugh here and there, this vehicle ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY is probably my least favorite of their films where they meet a Universal monster. The gags are okay, but not great. The Mummy, named Klaris here rather than Kharis, is pretty pathetic-looking. And for some reason even though Bud Abbott and Lou Costello play characters named Pete and Freddie, in the movie they simply call each other Bud and Lou. This may have been done to be funny, but it comes off as if they weren’t taking this film very seriously.

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY has no connection to any of the previous Universal Mummy movies. It’s not a bad movie, but neither is it all that great.

Well, there you have it. A look at the Universal MUMMY movies. I hope you will join me again next time for another HORROR JAR column where we will look at odds and ends from other horror movies.

Until then, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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LOGAN (2017) – Fitting Final Chapter for Wolverine

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You can’t run away from your past, especially if you’re a killer with a heart.

That’s the theme which runs through LOGAN (2017), the latest Marvel superhero movie about everyone’s favorite X-Men, the Wolverine, and it’s a theme that’s backed up by frequent references to the classic western SHANE (1953) starring Alan Ladd as a former gunslinger also haunted by his past.

And in the case of LOGAN, it’s more than just a figurative canker, as in this movie Logan’s murderous past is literally poisoning him from within.

When LOGAN opens, a gang of thugs pick the wrong limo to car jack, because resting inside the vehicle is Logan (Hugh Jackman) and he doesn’t take too kindly to people messing with his property.  But we quickly see that this is an older and weaker Logan, and where in the past his alter ego Wolverine would have made quick work of these thugs, now it’s a much more difficult job.  Wolverine takes care of these baddies, but it’s more of a struggle than we are used to seeing.

That’s because the story takes place in the near future, in 2029, a time when all the mutants are now a thing of the past, and Logan is trying his best to live out his life under the radar.  He’s living in Mexico, in very poor conditions, and with the help of fellow mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant) he’s caring for a very fragile and elderly Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart).   This is no easy task, since Professor X is prone to seizures, and when he has them, his extraordinarily powerful mind becomes a dangerous weapon and disrupts the world around him.  So, Logan has to keep the professor constantly medicated to prevent him from having seizures, and a lot of the money Logan earns running his limousine service goes towards purchasing these meds.

One day, Logan is approached by a woman Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who begs for Logan’s help.  She wants him to protect a young girl  Laura (Dafne Keen) who she says dangerous people are after.  Logan isn’t interested in helping and tells her to go away, but later he is approached by a man named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) sporting a powerful mechanical hand who questions Logan about this woman, claiming he needs to find her because she stole something from him.  And when Professor X tells Logan about a young girl who is a mutant, Logan ignores him as well, telling the professor there simply aren’t any mutants being born anymore.

But Logan is wrong, and when Pierce and his men locate Gabriela, Laura escapes in the back of Logan’s car, and suddenly it’s up to Logan and the ailing Professor X to protect her.  And while Logan initially is not interested, Professor X  tells him just who she is and who her father is, and that point, for Logan, there’s no going back.

I really enjoyed LOGAN, so much so that’s easily my favorite of the Wolverine movies.

The first thing that stands out about LOGAN is that it is Rated R.  As such, there is a lot of language and bloody violence throughout, things not typically found in a superhero movie.  I’m sure this movie was able to be made as an R rated vehicle because of the extraordinary success at the box office of DEADPOOL (2016) which was also rated R.  And while the language in LOGAN is nowhere near as raunchy as the language in DEADPOOL, the film certainly earns its R rating.

The violence and the language both work here because they are integral to the story.  It’s the way Logan talks, and anything less wouldn’t have seemed as realistic.  Likewise, the violence reflects the ugliness which Logan is trying to forget.  LOGAN is an adult tale, and as such, is completely at home with its R rating.

At one point in the movie Professor X and Laura are watching SHANE (See my review at this site)  on TV, and the professor tells her that they are watching a very famous movie. More than that, SHANE with its story of Alan Ladd’s gunslinger Shane trying to forget his past serves as a backdrop to the main theme of this movie.  Logan wants out, but he finds he cannot turn his back on the people who need him.  In an interview, writer/director James Mangold cited SHANE and Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN (1992) as inspirations behind LOGAN.

I enjoyed the way Mangold directed this movie.  The action scenes work, and the pacing is good, until the end, when things definitely slow down.  The most exciting sequence in the film is probably when Logan, Professor X, and Laura befriend a farming family— another SHANE reference— and later that night they are attacked by Pierce and his men and their new “secret weapon.”  It’s the most intense sequence of the movie.

The violence is effective and fits in with the story being told here. It also looks a bit more real here than in other R-rated action movies. Often an R rating means nothing more than the ability to show blood, and in this day and age, the blood is CGI -created and very fake looking. The violence in LOGAN looks real.

There’s also a seriousness to the movie that sets it apart from a lot of the other Marvel superhero flicks.

Mangold also directed the previous film in the Wolverine series, THE WOLVERINE (2013). LOGAN is a much better movie than THE WOLVERINE and plays more like another Mangold movie that I really liked, the western remake 3:10 TO YUMA (2007) starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe.

The screenplay by Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green is also very good, which comes as no surprise since all three of these guys have extensive impressive writing credits. In addition to the theme of trying to forget one’s past, the story also deals with getting old.  Both Logan, and to a greater degree, Professor X, are nearing the end of their lives, and to watch them at this stage of their life journeys is interesting.

Like the rest of the world, I’ve always enjoyed Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and while he can play the character in his sleep by now, his performance here in LOGAN is a step above his usual work because of the added element of the age factor.  In the very first sequence of the movie we are introduced to an aged Wolverine. In previous movies, Wolverine would have made short work of the men attacking him, but here, it’s a major struggle for him. It’s a cool scene, a neat way to open the film, and it sets the stage for Jackman’s superior performance.

And not only is Logan dealing with the normal aging process, but he’s sick.  The years of having metal inside his body have been slowly poisoning him to death.

Equally as good as Jackman is Patrick Stewart as Professor X.  In fact, probably my favorite part of LOGAN is the chemistry between Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Their banter is a highlight of the film.  They are both terrific actors, and they really work well together.

It was a lot of fun to see Patrick Stewart playing Professor X again. He’s been sharing duties with James McAvoy, who plays the character in the rebooted series featuring younger X-Men.  As such, the character of Professor X has struck gold in these movies, as he is portrayed by two top-notch actors, Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy. You can’t go wrong with either portrayal.

While I liked Dafne Keen as Laura,  she didn’t blow me away. Part of it is the writing of the character. She doesn’t say a whole lot, and a bulk of her scenes are strictly action scenes where she’s helped out by some CGI effects.  As such, she is less effective than she might have been.  Laura reminded me a little bit of the character Eleven played by Millie Bobby Brown in the TV show STRANGER THINGS, but ultimately was not as interesting.

The supporting cast was okay.  I found Stephen Merchant rather blah as Caliban.  I liked Boyd Holbrook as Pierce, but ultimately, he just becomes a glorified henchman. As the movie goes on, there’s less and less for him to do.

Like other Marvel movies, LOGAN struggles with its villain.  As much as I enjoy the Marvel movies, you can pretty much bank on it that the villain in the film is going to be sub-par, which I find really puzzling. You’d think more effort would go into creating memorable villains in these movies.

The main villain here, the man Pierce works for, is Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant) and he’s as dull as they come.  He pretty much put me to sleep.

And as good as LOGAN is, it doesn’t sustain its excellence all the way to the end. It starts off great, and up to that farmhouse scene, about two-thirds of the way in, it’s firing on all cylinders, but then it just fizzles out.

The final act is a letdown, and nowhere near as compelling as first two-thirds of the movie. And this is where not having a formidable villain really hurts, because you don’t have that to fall back on. If you have a memorable villain, then you are locked in until the end because you are waiting for that final confrontation. Without the villain, you’re not really waiting for anything, other than for the movie to be over.

LOGAN runs for two hours and seventeen minutes,and it could have easily been about 20 minutes shorter.

And while the final act is much less interesting than what came before it, the ending of the movie, the final frame, is a good one.  So, you have an excellent superhero movie that runs a bit too long and forgets itself for its final 30 minutes or so before ending with an exclamation point.

All in all, LOGAN is a fine entry in the Marvel superhero universe, a more adult tale than usual, and a fitting final chapter to the Wolverine story.

—END—.

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 (1974)

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DanCurtisDraculaHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, published in this month’s HWA Newsletter, on the Dan Curtis made-for-television shocker DRACULA (1974).

—Michael

 IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

Dan Curtis, the man behind the original “Dark Shadows” TV show, and THE NIGHT STALKER (1972), the film that introduced Carl Kolchak to the world, and a bunch of other above average TV horror movies from the 1970s, including TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975), produced and directed today’s movie, DRACULA (1974), a made-for-television retelling of the Bram Stoker tale with Jack Palance cast as the King of the Undead, Dracula.

My first memory of DRACULA was not a good one.  It was 1973, and I was nine years old.  I had aggressively lobbied my parents to let me stay up to watch the new DRACULA movie that had been advertised all week, and to my delight, they said yes!  Unfortunately, Richard Nixon also chose that night to announce to the nation in an hour long news conference covered by all three networks that he had selected Gerald Ford as his new Vice President.  In doing so, he pre-empted the showing of DRACULA.  My plans had been thwarted.  But I got the last laugh, as DRACULA was finally shown a few months later (thus the 1974 release date), and well, we all know what happened to Tricky Dick.

DRACULA is a decent enough movie, although it’s nowhere near as good as Curtis’ prior vampire efforts, THE NIGHT STALKER and “Dark Shadows.”  My favorite part of this movie is that it looks and plays like a Hammer Film, only not as good.

In fact, DRACULA shares some similarities with Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).  As in HORROR OF DRACULA, the character of Renfield is noticeably absent, and Van Helsing is portrayed once again as a medical doctor instead of the old professor from the novel.  We also don’t see Dracula change into a bat.

One difference between DRACULA and HORROR OF DRACULA—and Stoker’s novel as well— is the beefier role for Arthur Holmwood (Simon Ward.)  Perhaps this was because Simon Ward was an up and coming star, and they wanted to give him plenty of screen time.

DRACULA boasts a decent enough cast, but unfortunately no one really stands out.

You’d think Jack Palance with his experience playing villains in the movies would have made an excellent Dracula, but he really doesn’t. One reason for this is the script emphasizes the romantic element, as we find Dracula in love with Lucy (Fiona Lewis) as she is the splitting image of his long lost love.  So, we get to see some romantic flashbacks with Palance and his love, and I don’t know about you, but I just don’t see Palance as the leading man type.  He’s much more the straight villain, and unfortunately, he doesn’t really get the opportunity to be all that evil in this one.  He fared much better in the evil department when he played Mr. Hyde in THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1968).

When he’s allowed to be angry, Palance is very good as Dracula.  However, there’s a difference between anger and evil, and strangely, in this film, Palance doesn’t do evil all that well.  There’s something lacking in his performance, and it’s almost as if Palance, Curtis, and screenwriter Richard Matheson were trying to make Dracula more human and less supernatural.  It makes one appreciate just how good Christopher Lee was as Dracula.  Lee has always been able to capture the essence of evil in his performances as the Prince of Darkness.

Speaking of Christopher Lee, in 1974 producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman wanted Jack Palance to play the villain in their latest James Bond movie, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974), but Palance had to turn them down because he was contracted to do DRACULA.  So Broccoli and Saltzman were forced to look elsewhere.  The part of villainous hit man Scaramanga eventually went to Christopher Lee.  So, you might say Lee could thank Dracula for landing him a role in a James Bond movie.

Simon Ward makes for a decent Arthur Holmwood, although I liked him better as Karl, the young doctor blackmailed by Peter Cushing’s evil Baron Frankenstein into helping the Baron transplant people’s brains in the superior Hammer shocker FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969).

The rest of the cast is rather blah.  Nigel Davenport is OK as Van Helsing, but compared to Peter Cushing, he’s rather dull.  And neither Fiona Lewis as Lucy or Penelope Horner as Mina makes for very effective heroines.  Murray Brown is wooden as Jonathan Harker.

I do like the direction by Dan Curtis.  DRACULA is probably the best looking “Hammer Film that’s not really a Hammer Film” ever made!  From beginning to end, it looks and plays like a Hammer Dracula movie.  While Curtis crafts plenty of good looking scenes, taking full advantage of the color red throughout, unfortunately one thing he forgot to do was make this one scary.  DRACULA doesn’t come close to being as effective, memorable, or as flat out frightening as Curtis’ earlier hit THE NIGHT STALKER.

There’s a neat scene where Dracula shows off his superior strength when he’s confronted by a group of men.  Drac goes into action star mode and makes short work of these guys.  The film could have used more scenes like this.

The screenplay by Richard Matheson does include a neat bit from the novel which before then hadn’t really made it into any of the movies, where Van Helsing hypnotizes Mina and is able to tap into her psychic connection with Dracula in order to gain insight into his thoughts.  It’s through this process that they are able to learn of Dracula’s plans to return to his castle.

However, the script does a lousy job with Mina and Lucy.  Lucy is supposed to be Dracula’s great love in this movie, but she’s killed off with a stake in the heart early on, and so that love affair goes nowhere, and Mina isn’t the strong heroine she is in the novel.  Her part is greatly reduced here.

And again, while Jack Palance isn’t bad as Dracula, he’s not great either.  He lacks Christopher Lee’s ability to personify evil, and he’s certainly not the romantic lead we’d find in Frank Langella as Dracula five years later in the 1979 John Badham film.

DRACULA is a mediocre film version of Bram Stoker’s iconic novel.  It’s beautifully photographed and it features a decent performance by Jack Palance as the Count, but the rest of the cast isn’t up to snuff.  It ultimately plays like “Hammer Lite.”

Dracula should have sharpened his fangs for this one.

It could have used more bite.

—END—

SHANE (1953) Classic Western Still Has A Lot to Say

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SHANE posterStreaming Video Review:  SHANE (1953)

by

Michael Arruda

They sure don’t make them like they used to.

SHANE (1953), the classic western from director George Stevens, has “four star” movie written all over it, from its exquisite Oscar-winning cinematography to its larger than life performances, it’s a movie with a grand vision that has as much to say today as it did over 50 years ago, perhaps more so.

It’s the wild west, Wyoming to be exact, in the years following the American Civil War, after the Homestead Act, when a man named Shane (Alan Ladd) arrives at the farm of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and their young son Joey (Brandon De Wilde).  The family immediately warms up to Shane and invites him to remain on their farm as a worker, and he agrees.  Shane is a gunslinger running from his past, and so he welcomes the opportunity to join the Starrett farm and enjoy a new lifestyle.  Young Joey quickly idolizes the former gunslinger.

But all is not right in their little world.  A rather brazen bully of a man Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) wants to buy Joe’s land, as well as the farms of Joe’s fellow homesteaders. When they all refuse to sell, and Rufus’ bully tactics continue to fail, he hires notorious gunman Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) to take his fight to the next level.

Joe is a stubborn man and a proven leader, and in spite of the presence of a murderer like Jack Wilson, remains steadfast in his determination to keep his farm, and he pleads with his neighbors to remain firm with him as well.  But when blood begins to flow, all bets are off, and it’s at this point that Shane realizes he can’t run from his past any longer, because it’s up to him to protect his friends.

Sure, this plot is nothing we haven’t seen before, but SHANE isn’t only about plot.  It’s also about presentation.

The cinematography by Loyal Griggs, which won an Oscar in 1954, is epic.  The colors, the landscape, the characters, are all captured as larger than life.

SHANE was directed by George Stevens, one of the all-time great movie directors, and many consider SHANE to be his masterpiece.  It’s hard to disagree with this assessment.

The thing that stands out the most for me about SHANE, which I recently caught up with on streaming video the other day, is how strongly this film makes its case for violence as a last resort.  Now, I prefer my westerns dark, and I enjoy violent action movies as much as the next guy, but there was something exceedingly refreshing about this movie’s approach to violence.  Screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr. hammers the point home that fighting is one thing, but bringing a gun into the mix is quite another.

Early on, bully Rufus Ryker makes it a point to say in his defense that he uses fists to settle his disagreements, and will not resort to guns.  He wants no trouble with the law.  Later, when he finally breaks down and hires gunslinger Jack Wilson, he makes sure that witnesses see that it is Wilson who is doing the shooting, and not him.  Also, Wilson baits his victims so they draw first, allowing him to claim he was shooting in self-defense.

When Shane teaches young Joey how to handle a gun, Marian scolds Shane and tells him her son will not grow up in a world of guns.  Shane tells Marian that a gun is a tool, to be used like other tools, and that a gun is no better or worse than the person using it.

SHANE is not an anti-violence movie.  There are plenty of fistfights, and eventually when the guns come out, there is bloodshed.  SHANE simply adds some thinking to the mix, and as such, its approach towards gun violence is a breath of fresh air compared to what we see in the movies today.  Imagine, actually thinking about and realizing that a bullet will end a man’s life forever.  Imagine Sylvester Stallone, or even Clint Eastwood for that matter, preferring not to kill his adversary.  That being said, Shane is not a pacifist.  He’s a murderer, and he’s just as deadly as the next guy, except he’d rather not kill if he could help it.  Trouble is, he lives in a world where turning the other cheek isn’t really an option.

Alan Ladd is perfectly cast as the gunslinger who’d rather be a farmer, and his laid back persona is charming as he provides a steady helping hand for the Starrett family.  While Ladd turns in a decent performance, he doesn’t provide the best performance in the movie.

I actually prefer Van Heflin as Joe Starrett.  The man is a rock, and even when the bullets start to fly, he refuses to back down.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Starrett decides he’s had enough and he’s going to face Jack Wilson.  Shane tries to convince him that he’s no match for Wilson, but Starrett has too much pride and refuses to give in.  In order to stop Starrett from facing Wilson, Shane has to fight the man, and the two friends literally kick the living daylights out of each other in one of the film’s most rousing moments, a hand to hand battle for the right to go up against Jack Wilson.

During this scuffle, director Stevens includes shots of the farm animals going ballistic and freaking out as the two men beat the stuffing out of each other.  There is a general sense that all is wrong with the world at this moment.

Jean Arthur is fine as Marian in her final movie role, and it’s hardly noticeable that at 50, she was considerably older than either Van Heflin or Alan Ladd.

My personal favorite performance in SHANE belongs to Jack Palance as Jack Wilson.  As the gunslinger who wears black, Palance is oh so creepy.  He has very few lines of dialogue, and everything is understated about him, but he has such a commanding deadly presence, he gets under your skin.  And when he does speak, his words cut like a knife slitting a throat.  It’s a deliciously evil performance.

But the actor who steals the movie is young Brandon De Wilde as Joey.  I simply can’t imagine SHANE without De Wilde with his ever so wide eyes crying out “Shane!  Shane!”  Seriously, the kid steals every scene he’s in, and he’s in a lot of scenes.  Tragically, De Wilde was killed in car accident in 1972.  He was 30.

Emile Meyer makes a sufficiently villainous Rufus Ryker.  You just want to kick this guy in the butt.

Also in the cast is Ben Johnson as one of Ryker’s heavies Chris Calloway, who eventually grows weary of his boss’s heavy-handed ways and provides Shane with some valuable information later in the movie.  Johnson made a ton of movies, but I always remember him from one of his early roles as the gorilla-lassoing cowboy Gregg in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949).

John Dierkes plays Rufus’ equally cold-hearted brother Morgan.  Dierkes you might remember had a small but noticeable bit as Dr. Chapman in Howard Hawks’ THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951).

There is a strong sense of sincerity in SHANE that is refreshing. It’s why all the characters work so well, and why the story, just an average one, soars, because everyone in the film is solid and true, and nearly everything they do is believable.

It’s also not predictable.  By the time the film reaches its explosive climax, the fate of its characters remains uncertain.  When Shane rides into town to face Jack Wilson, the movie has done such an admirable job building up character and tension, you really don’t know who is going to come out on top.  Will Shane be gunned down in front of little Joey’s eyes?  Or does he have enough left in him to be that much faster than the swift and deadly Jack Wilson?  For a film that plays it light with the violence, it lays it on heavy with the suspense.  I wish more films today would follow this formula.

While SHANE won the Oscar for best Cinematography in 1954, it was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Jack Palance, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for young Brandon De Wilde.  Either one of these actors could easily have won.  Who did win Best Supporting Actor that year?  The nod went to Frank Sinatra for his work in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953) which also won Best Picture and Best Director (Fred Zinnemann) that year.

SHANE is a classic western that entertains from start to finish, and what it has to say about guns and violence is more apropos today than ever before.

Yup, they just don’t make them like they used to.

—Michael