IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: KING KONG ESCAPES (1967)

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This IN THE SPOOKIGHT column is a reprint from February 2007:

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Think of Japan’s Toho productions, and the first name that comes to mind is Godzilla, and rightly so, since Toho produced more than 25 movies starring everyone’s favorite giant mutated dinosaur.

However, Toho also made a couple of King Kong movies in the 1960s.  They made some Frankenstein films as well, but we won’t go there today.  Their second (and last) Kong film was KING KONG ESCAPES (1967), generally considered to be one of the worst Kong movies ever made, right up there  with KING KONG LIVES (1986).

My vote for the worst goes to KING KONG LIVES, and that’s because I have a soft spot in my heart for KING KONG ESCAPES.  Maybe it’s because KING KONG ESCAPES was the first Kong movie I ever saw. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s not that bad after all.

KING KONG ESCAPES borrows heavily from the 1960s James Bond craze.  There’s a supervillain, the evil Dr. Who, beautiful women, and a dashing hero, played by Rhodes Reason doing his best to impersonate Sean Connery.  What passes as a plot has Dr. Who building a robot Kong to dig up the precious “element X” which of course, once he has, he’ll be able to use to rule the world! (cue crazed evil laugh). When the robot Kong fails, Who captures the real Kong to do the work.  Of course, Kong isn’t interested.  He’s too busy falling in love with the young blonde lead in the movie, Susan, played by Linda Miller.

Unlike Fay Wray in the original, there’s no screaming here. Linda Miller’s character hardly seems frightened at all by Kong’s presence, and converses with him as if talking to her pet dog.  Better yet, Kong listens and understands everything she says!  Gone are the days when Kong tossed women who weren’t Fay Wray from New York buildings.  In KING KONG ESCAPES, Kong is clearly a hero and a gentleman— or is it a gentle-ape?

Still, he packs a punch when he needs to.  Japanese monster movies are famous for their giant monster battles, and on that front, KING KONG ESCAPES doesn’t disappoint.  Kong fights a dinosaur, a sea monster, and in a “colossal struggle of monster vs. robot” as the film’s original movie posters boasted, he takes on his duplicate, the giant Robot Kong, in an epic climactic battle, which is actually quite well done.

The special effects really aren’t that bad.  They’re on par with other Japanese monster movies of the decade, maybe even a bit better.  Kong looks silly, but his appearance is several notches above his previous Toho stint, in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1963), where he looked sort of ragged, as if he’d been pummeled a few times by co-star Godzilla before the cameras rolled.   And the Robot Kong is pretty cool looking.

KING KONG ESCAPES was directed by Ishiro Honda, who directed many of Toho’s better films, including the original GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! in 1954.  The English version screenplay by William J. Keenan is extremely silly, with awful dialogue, but it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is Kong, and he gets plenty of screen time.

KING KONG ESCAPES doesn’t come close to either the original KING KONG (1933), or Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake.  It is not a great movie nor does it pretend to be.  The inept 1976 KING KONG with Jessica Lange, if you remember, compared itself to JAWS.

However, it is fun and entertaining, and in the world of monster movies, that’s often enough.  At the end of the day, Kong is still king, still roaring, still on top, even after KING KONG ESCAPES.

—END—

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IN THE SHADOWS: FRANCIS MATTHEWS

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Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, that column where we look at character actors in the movies.

Today our focus is on Francis Matthews. If you’re a Hammer Film fan, you’re familiar with Matthews’ work, because of two key performances in THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) and DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

With his distinctive voice, which sounds an awful lot like Cary Grant’s, Matthews made a lasting impression in these Hammer sequels.

Here’s a very brief look at the career of Francis Matthews, focusing mainly on his genre credits:

BHOWANI JUNCTION (1956) – Ranjit Kasel- Matthews’ first big screen credit is in this drama about English/Indian relations directed by George Cukor.  Stars Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger.

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Francis Matthews and Peter Cushing in THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958).

THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) – Doctor Hans Kleve-  Francis Matthews is memorable here as the new young assistant to Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein, or as he is known in this movie since he’s supposed to be dead and is hiding from the authorities, Dr. Stein. Matthews and Cushing share a nice camaraderie in their scenes together, and it’s too bad the series didn’t continue with these two actors. The character of Hans is notable here because at the end of the movie he successfully transplants Dr. Stein’s brain into another body.

CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958) – Jonathan Bolton – co-stars with both Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee in this standard shocker featuring Karloff playing a doctor who becomes addicted to the powerful anesthesia he has created and as a result becomes involved in murder. Christopher Lee plays a grave robber named Resurrection Joe, and his supporting performance steals the show. The best part is Karloff and Lee’s climactic battle, pitting one “Frankenstein monster” vs. the other. Neat stuff! Matthews plays it straight as Karloff’s son and protegé.

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Francis Matthews and Christopher Lee in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) – Charles Kent – By far, my favorite Francis Matthews’ role. He plays Charles Kent, one of the four guests who find themselves spending the night in Dracula’s castle, and it’s Charles’ brother Alan (Charles Tingwell) who’s murdered by Dracula’s disciple Klove (Philip Latham) who then uses Alan’s blood to resurrect Dracula (Christopher Lee) in one of Hammer’s bloodiest and most gruesome scenes.

Charles then teams up with Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) to hunt down Dracula, but the vampire king complicates things by going after Charles’ wife Diana (Suzan Farmer) first.

This sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), arguably Hammer’s best shocker, is itself a really good movie, and its reputation has only gotten better over the years. Francis Matthews makes for a strong leading man, until that is, he has to face Dracula, which is as it should be. The later Hammer Draculas would stumble by having every random young hero best the vampire king when in all seriousness, that should have been something only the Van Helsings of the world could do.

Also, if you own the Blu-ray version of DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, it includes a rare and very informative commentary by Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Suzan Farmer, and Francis Matthews. All four actors sat down together for a screening of the film, and for most of them it was the first time they had watched the movie in years. All four actors add really neat insights. For instance, during the film’s pre-credit sequence, which begins with the ending of HORROR OF DRACULA, Lee was quick to point out that the ending they were watching was cut from the original version, and this commentary was recorded long before the recent restored version by Hammer.

The Blu-ray also contains rare behind-the-scenes footage on the set of DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS secretly filmed by Francis Matthews’ brother using an 8mm camera.

Sadly, of these four actors, only Barbara Shelley remains with us, as Lee, Matthews, and Suzan Farmer have all since passed away (Farmer in 2017).

RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK (1966) – Ivan – shot nearly simultaneously as DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the film uses the same sets and much of the same cast, including Christopher Lee, Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley, and Suzan Farmer.

THE SAINT (1964-1967) – Andre/Paul Farley – “To Kill A Saint”/”The Noble Sportsman” – appeared in two episodes of the popular Roger Moore spy show.

THE AVENGERS (1966-1967) – Chivers/Collins – “Mission – Highly Improbable”/”The Thirteenth Hole”- appeared in two episodes of THE AVENGERS TV show.

RUN FOR YOUR WIFE (2012) – Francis Matthews’ final screen credit is in this British comedy.

Francis Matthews has 106 screen credits, and I’ll always remember him for his two noteworthy performances in two of Hammer’s better sequels, THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) and DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

Matthews was born on September 2, 1927. He died on June 14, 2014 at the age of 86.

Well, that’s all we have time for today. I hope you enjoyed reading about Francis Matthews, and please join me again next time on the next IN THE SHADOWS when we’ll look at the career at another great character actor in the movies, especially horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

HORROR MOVIES 2018 – Worst to First

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Jamie Lee Curtis as long suffering Laurie Strode striking back against Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN (2018)

2018 wasn’t really the best year for horror movies, at least not at the theater. Netflix actually had some of the better horror movies I saw this year. But at the theater it was slim pickings. Of the nearly 100 movies I saw at the move theater this year, only 12 were horror films, and a few of those weren’t really “horror” per se. Granted, there were a few clinkers I avoided all together, and so by design I saw fewer horror flicks in 2018.

Here we go, my list of HORROR MOVIES 2018, from worst to first:

12.THE NUN  – by far, the worst horror film I saw this year. I know, a lot of people liked this one, but the script with both its lame story and ridiculous dialogue was horrible. Shot on location in Romania, the film looks terrific, but that’s all it has going for it. Part of the CONJURING universe.

11.INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY – yet another INSIDIOUS prequel. I really wish they’d put this series to rest already. I do like Lin Shaye as demon hunter Elise Rainier, but since this character was killed off in the very first INSIDIOUS movie, the continuing back stories told in the prequels don’t really resonate.

10. JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM – not really a horror movie, but you do have those dinosaurs. Pretty bad entry in the JURASSIC series. Silly and oftentimes dull.

9. HALLOWEEN – after all the hype, this latest entry in the HALLOWEEN series was ultimately a disappointment. Ignoring every other movie in the series except for the original John Carpenter classic HALLOWEEN (1978) the film joins Laurie Strode 50 years later as she’s still dealing with the traumatic events of being stalked by Michael Myers on Halloween back in 1978. Jamie Lee Curtis returns to the series to play Laurie once again, and her scenes are by far the best in the movie- the best written and the best acted. The rest of the movie is surprisingly awful. Tells nearly the same story as HALLOWEEN H20: 20 YEARS LATER (1998).

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8. RAMPAGE – Again, not really a horror movie, but the film does feature giant animals battling each other. This ultra silly Dwayne Johnson vehicle has its moments, and it’s more fun than you might think.

7. HEREDITARY – I know, for a lot of horror fans, this was the best horror flick from 2018. I was lukewarm to it. I enjoyed it for nearly 2/3 of the way through, but its ending pretty much ruined it for me. There’s a lot to like about this horror movie, which for me, ultimately did not deliver.

6. OVERLORD – this horror move/World War II action adventure combo wasn’t half bad. On the eve of D-Day, a small group of American soldiers on a secret mission discover a horrific Nazi secret. Works better as an action film than a horror movie, as the horror elements don’t really show up till the end, and they’re not as horrifying as expected.

5. THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE – this demonic possession movie was better than I expected. The gimmick here is that the possessed being is a corpse rather than a living person. I know. That doesn’t sound like much of a gimmick. But it works here thanks to a compelling lead performance by Shay Mitchell as the woman in the morgue who encounters the angry demon.

4. HELL FEST – another one that was better than expected. This one got off to an awful start with some sloppy direction and bad dialogue, but its standard tale of a crazed killer causing havoc at a Halloween amusement park gets better as it goes along, much, much better. Amy Forshyth is excellent as main character Natalie, the one girl in the group who’s not interested in horror or the supernatural but finds herself smack dab in the center of all it.

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3. THE MEG – this giant shark tale starring Jason Statham should have been stupid, but surprise! It’s actually pretty good. So much so that it was one of my favorite movies from last summer. No, it’s not JAWS (1975), but it’s the best of the recent shark movies, in spite of run-of-the-mill special effects.The strength of THE MEG is its surprisingly snappy script and exceptional performances by everyone involved, and seriously, you can’t really go wrong with a Jason Statham action movie, even if he’s battling a gigantic prehistoric shark.

2. ANNIHILATION – this film is way superior to the previous ten films on this list. This horror/science fiction flick about a group of women led by Natalie Portman on an expedition to investigate a bizarre phenomenon where the normal laws of nature don’t apply has three things going for it: the science fiction aspects will blow your mind, the horror scenes deliver, and its female cast is second to none. Exceptional science fiction horror.

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1. A QUIET PLACE – my pick for the best horror movie of 2018. Sure, its ending doesn’t make a lot of sense, but what comes before it works so well I let the weak conclusion slide. This tale of vicious alien creatures with exceptional hearing which hunt down humans whenever they hear them follows one family’s efforts to survive in this apocalyptic tale directed by John Krasinski, who also stars as the father in the family. Co-star Emily Blunt has one of the best scenes in the movie, a birthing scene. Yup, try giving birth silently as a hungry alien creature closes in for the kill. Scary stuff. Well done throughout. Also a lot of fun to see a movie that for nearly 45 minutes offers no sound on the soundtrack as the family has to survive silently. It was amazing how fast the silence caused people in the theater to stop munching on their popcorn.

There you have it. A look at the horror films from 2018.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Worst Movies of 2018

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Here’s a look at my Top 10 Least Favorite movies from 2018:

10. OCEAN’S 8 – I’ve never been a fan of the OCEAN’S movies starring George Clooney and company, and this new all-female version starring Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett didn’t do anything to change my opinion. Forced and contrived, this one just never won me over.

9. ADRIFT- Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin play two free spirits who meet, fall in love, and decide to sail across the ocean together, but their plans are thwarted by a massive hurricane which threatens their lives. Sounds better than it is.

8. BAD SAMARITAN – David Tennant plays an ultra evil baddie who likes to keep women chained in his home. When his house is broken into, the thieves discover his secret, but they can’t go to the police because they’re thieves, so they decide to save the day on their own, but he doesn’t like that very much.  A completely over-the-top thriller that strains credibility.

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7. RED SPARROW -Ridiculolus thriller wastes the talents of Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton. Lawrence plays a Russian spy, Edgerton a CIA agent, in a tale that is muddled from start to finish.

6. UNSANE – Steven Soderbergh shot the entire film using an IPhone 7 Plus, which ultimately, doesn’t really add much to this lamebrained thriller. Claire Foye is enjoyable in the lead role, but ultimately a bad script does this one in.

5. INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY – Enough with the INSIDIOUS prequels already! True, Lin Shaye is enjoyable to watch as Elise Rainer, but since the character was killed off in the very first INSIDIOUS movie, these continuous looks into her back story just aren’t all that compelling.

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4. THE 15:17 TO PARIS – Clint Eastwood made the fateful decision to film this re-telling of the true story of three Americans who thwarted a terrorist attack on a train in Paris by hiring the three young men to play themselves rather than use actors. It’s a decision that didn’t really work, as these three guys on screen are dull and boring. There’s a reason movies employ professional actors.

3. THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – An R-rated raunchy comedy starring Muppets and Melissa McCarthy sounds like a funny idea, but unfortunately, this film directed by Brian Henson doesn’t deliver. It does start off pretty darn funny, but it all goes downhill from there. My least favorite comedy of the year.

2.THE NUN – And here’s my least favorite horror movie of the year.  With its on-location filming in Romania, the film looks great! But the story and dialogue are dreadful. Part of the CONJURING universe. A lot of people liked this one, but I thought it was bottom-of-the-barrel horror.

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1.PEPPERMINT –  And my pick for the Worst Film of 2018 goes to PEPPERMINT, an abysmal thriller starring Jennifer Garner. Garner plays a vigilante going after the people who killed her family. Plays like a female version of the DEATH WISH movies. Things are so bad here that even the vengeance scenes fall flat. By far, the most boring movie I saw this year.

And there you have it, my list of the Top 10 Worst Films from 2018.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

Best Movies 2018

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 Movies from 2018:

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10. BOOK CLUB – I really enjoyed this comedy starring Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen about four friends who decide to read 50 Shades of Grey for their monthly book club, and it changes the way they think about sex and relationships during their senior years. Also starring Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Richard Dreyfus, and Craig T. Nelson. My favorite comedy of the year.

9. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?  – in a banner yeary for documentaries, this one was my favorite. Its recounting of the life of Fred Rogers, TV’s Mister Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, resonates deeply today, as Rogers’ message of inclusion and gentle understanding is sorely missed in today’s antagonistic and deeply divided society.

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8. ANT-MAN AND THE WASP – I enjoyed this Ant-Man sequel more than the original. Story is better, jokes and situations are funnier, and Evangeline Lily adds a lot as the Wasp and is a nice complement to Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man. Oh, and then there’s that after-credits tie-in with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR which produced audible gasps from the audience.

7.BOY ERASED – Joel Edgerton wrote and directed this film which exposes gay conversion theory for the dangerous procedure that it is. Fine performances by Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe, and by Edgerton himself as an unqualified leader of the conversion camp.

6. THE FRONT RUNNER – Sure, I’m partial to political movies, but this tale of Gary Hart’s fall from being the Democratic front runner in the 1988 presidential election to dropping out of the race entirely due to an exposed extra-marital affair pushed all the right buttons for me. The film asks relevant questions which are still being asked today. Hugh Jackman is terrific as Gary Hart, as is Vera Farmiga as his suffering wife Lee.

5. EIGHTH GRADE – Awesome film which completely captures what it is like to be an eighth grader. On target writing and directing by Bo Burnham, especially the dialogue, and a fantastic lead performance by Elsie Fisher as eighth grader Kayla Day.

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Elsie Fisher in EIGHTH GRADE (2018)

4. THE GUILTY – From Denmark, this claustrophobic intense police drama is as compelling as they come, the type of film Alfred Hitchcock would have made. All of the action takes place inside a police dispatch office as an officer relegated to the emergency dispatch receives a call from a woman being kidnapped, and he has to deal with the situation in real time. You’ll swear you’ve seen all the action scenes, but that will be your mind playing tricks on you, as the camera remains focused on the police officer throughout. Excellent movie, and lean, as it clocks in at a swift 85 minutes.

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3. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR – It was an outstanding year for Marvel, as three of my top ten films this year come from the Marvel Universe. This was the biggie, the ultimate showdown between the Avengers and their most dangerous adversary yet, Thanos. Amazing superhero movie, with a big bold ending which is no longer a spoiler, which is, the bad guy wins in this one. One of the most emotional endings to any superhero movie, causing audible gasps and groans multiple times as the film races to its inevitable conclusion.

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2. ROMA – An extraordinary movie, ROMA was unlike any other film I saw this year. Unassuming simple tale of a maid working for a family in Mexico in 1970-71. Features some of the best camerawork of the year, all of it in mesmerizing black and white. Slow at first, but stick with it. The final 45 minutes is among the most emotional moments on film I saw all year.

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1. BLACK PANTHER –  My pick for the best movie of the year is another Marvel gem. This one takes the superhero movie to a whole other level, dealing with racial issues as well as any mainstream drama. My favorite superhero film since THE DARK KNIGHT (2018). I loved the conflict between hero Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan),and one of the rare times in a superhero movie where the hero admits he’s wrong and the villain is right.  Outstanding in every way, easily my favorite movie of 2018.

So, there you have it, my picks for the Best Films of 2018.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018) – Strangely Somber Sequel Doesn’t Measure Up

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I’ve always enjoyed Disney’s MARY POPPINS (1964), and so I was really excited to see its long-awaited sequel MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018). I had been looking forward to it for a while.

So, the fact that I didn’t really like this one, surprised me. A lot. Especially since I enjoyed Disney’s live action reworking of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) so much last year. But MARY POPPINS RETURNS didn’t work for me. Everything about it felt flat and uninspiring.

The Banks children from MARY POPPINS have grown up.  Michael (Ben Whishaw) still lives at his childhood home on Cherry Tree Lane with his three children, but sadness reigns these days, as his wife has recently passed away.  Jane (Emily Mortimer) is still single and seems to be helping Michael with his children as best she can, but it seems it’s not enough, and out from the skies returns Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) ostensibly to help the Banks children once again.

Although it’s difficult to know why she’s really there and who exactly is it she’s trying to help. Is it Michael, who seems to have forgotten what it’s like to be a child and is now a worrying grumpy adult? Is it Michael’s children who because of their mother’s death have had to grow up a little too quickly? Or is Jane who needs some pushing when it comes to relationships?  Or perhaps it’s all of the above? Either way, Mary Poppins has her work cut out for her.

And things get worse before they get better, as Michael learns the bank is about to repossess his home unless he can find a missing bank share from his father which he seems to have lost. The fact that Michael now works at the bank means little, because the head of the bank Wilkins (Colin Firth) is intent on obtaining Michael’s property and will do everything in his power to prevent Michael from paying off the loan.

There’s a lot that I did not like about MARY POPPINS RETURNS. Let’s start with the tone of this movie.  For a Disney musical, it’s filled with doom and gloom. From the photography to the subject matter, it’s a strangely dark piece.

Here we have a plot that deals with the death of a parent and with three very young children who are in a bind because their father is not emotionally equipped to take care of them once his wife has passed on.  Honestly, they need more than Mary Poppins to come swooping in singing to them about magic and the like.

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t build a successful children’s story around death.  The recent Netflix’ Christmas movie THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES (2018) did it, and did it quite well. In that movie, the two children have lost their father, but thanks to a spirited and quite hilarious performance by Kurt Russell as Santa Claus, the film works. Russell and the script capture the magic needed to overcome a dreary tale of parental death.

The same is not true for MARY POPPINS RETURNS. The story never quite sheds the sadness associated with the death of a parent. The predominant emotion in the film is sorrow. This, in spite of the film’s best efforts to promote happiness and joy.

A big reason for this tone is the dark photography. I don’t think there’s a ray of sunshine to be found until the very end.  Director Rob Marshall made the curious choice to film this one as if he were making a movie based on a Charles Dickens novel.

The other reason I really struggled to like this movie was that Emily Blunt, an actress whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely, just never made Mary Poppins quite work for me. Like the rest of the movie, there’s just something off and harsh about her performance. She somehow misses the magic which Julie Andrews brought to the role. Blunt goes through the motions and tries her best to bring Mary Poppins to life, but there’s something missing.  That twinkle in the eye, that spark of nonsensical magic, that burst of giddy happiness, all emotions associated with Julie Andrews’ performance are somehow absent here.

I enjoyed Lin-Manuel Miranda more as Jack, a lamplighter who has taken over the Dick Van Dyke “Burt” role here. He’s the go-to guy when it comes to understanding Mary Poppins, and he gets some of the best song and dance numbers, but rather than chimney sweeps the sequel gives us lamplighters.

The rest of the cast falls flat. Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson, who play the Banks children Anabel, John, and Georgie probably fare the best. They do what they’re supposed to do, and they’re fun to watch.

But Ben Whishaw is all doom and gloom as grown up Michael Banks, so much so that he nearly gave me a headache whenever he was on-screen. Whishaw is a very good actor, and I’ve enjoyed him a lot as Q in the recent Daniel Craig James Bond movies, but here he’s stuck in a one note role.

Emily Mortimer fares a little bit better but not much as grown up Jane Banks. She’s not as dour as her brother, but she’s stuck in an unconvincing subplot that attempts to set her up with lamplighter Jack. The story never convinced me that Jane would even give Jack the time of day, and the two share no chemistry together on-screen.

Colin Firth hams it up as a rather dull villain who has no depth whatsoever. Meryl Streep has one scene, as Cousin Topsy, in one of the movie’s livelier song and dance numbers, a bit that is supposed to hearken back to the “I Love to Laugh” sequence from the original.  It’s not as good, and again, like the entire production, there’s something grating about it.

Old friend David Warner plays Admiral Boom in scenes that add nothing to the film, and Angela Lansbury has one scene as the Balloon Lady. Of course, Dick Van Dyke does show up near the end, and while he alone can’t save this one, seeing him on-screen was one of the few memorable parts about the film.

I did not enjoy the script by David Magee. First of all, it is incredibly derivative of the original.  It pretty much tells the same exact plot of the first film.  The Banks family is in trouble, and Mary Poppins arrives to save the day. Now, I’m not arguing for a screenplay that is Mary Poppins vs. the Nazis, but something a little more refreshing and different would have gone a long way here. The plot itself bored me to tears, and offered few surprises.

I also did not enjoy the theme of the adult who supposedly forgot what it was like to be a child and needs help to be reminded. We just saw this theme in the equally flawed CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) where Pooh and friends had to save an adult Christopher Robin from himself by reminding him what it was like to be a kid. The theme didn’t work in that movie, and it doesn’t work here. There’s a reason Michael Banks is so upset, and it has nothing to do with forgetting to be a child. He’s lost his wife, and he’s about to lose his home, and he has three young children. Sorry, Disney, but Mary Poppins isn’t quite the answer to this man’s problems.

The screenplay also ignores two of the other central characters from MARY POPPINS, Jane and Michael’s parents, George and Winnifred Banks. They’re barely mentioned at all in this sequel, and if you’re a fan of the original, you kind of want to know what happened to them, since Mary Poppins didn’t arrive in that first movie only to save the children. She was there for the parents as well.

And since this sequel is so derivative of the original, at times you feel as if you are watching a remake rather than a sequel, except MARY POPPINS RETURNS has none of the memorable songs that the original had.  MARY POPPINS gave us “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Feed the Birds,” “Step in Time,” and “Chim-Chim-Cheree” to name just a few.

MARY POPPINS RETURNS does get better as it goes along, and it saves its best stuff, especially its song and dance numbers, for its second half.  The rousing “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” was probably my favorite dance number in the movie, but again, it’s highly derivative of the “Step In Time” number from the original.

The sequence involving Big Ben is also noteworthy, and the final number “Nowhere to Go But Up” is one of the better song and dance sequences in the film. Had this number occurred early on, and the rest of the film were to have gone on and explored uncharted territory, then perhaps MARY POPPINS RETURNS would have been something special.

As it stands, it’s not very special at all.

In fact, MARY POPPINS RETURNS isn’t much better than a standard by the numbers sequel, offering little to fans of the original other than a rehash of the same plot points but without the wonderful Sherman brothers’ songs.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

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house of frankenstein poster

After the success of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), Universal decided that two monsters in one movie wasn’t enough, and so they added a third, Count Dracula, for their next monster movie romp, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is most notable for the return of Boris Karloff to the Universal FRANKENSTEIN series after a two film hiatus. Of course, Karloff previously had played the Frankenstein Monster.  Here, he plays the evil Dr. Niemann.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is the story of Dr. Niemann, a protegé of Dr. Frankenstein. When the movie opens, Niemann is in prison, but he soon escapes along with his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish.) When they happen upon the skeleton of Count Dracula (John Carradine) Niemann resurrects the vampire by pulling the stake from his heart. He then promises Dracula protection if in return the Count will kill the official responsible for putting Niemann in prison.

Later, as Niemann and Daniel search for Dr. Frankenstein’s records, they discover the frozen bodies of Larry Talbot/aka the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), and at this point the film becomes a sequel to FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Like every good mad scientist, Niemann revives these monsters as well.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN flies by at a brisk 71 minutes. It really is too short to make much of an impact. Had this one been fleshed out a bit more, it would have been more effective.  It’s really not that strong a movie, as it plays like a shallow sequel, with the monsters resurrected only to be quickly done in once again. That being said, it does retain the Universal monster magic, and so while I recognize that this really isn’t that high quality a film, it’s a guilty pleasure that I enjoy each time I watch it.

It also does have some special moments, as well as a strong cast. It’s just that the whole thing seems terribly rushed.

It also doesn’t help that the Dracula storyline begins and ends before the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster show up. Even the next film in the series, HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) doesn’t really take full advantage of its three monsters. One has to wait until ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948), the comedic finale to the series, before one can enjoy a full and satisfying meeting of the monsters.

Finishing off Dracula so early was not a strength of Edward T. Lowe Jr.’s screenplay. Nor is the dialogue, some of which is laughable, and this one is not a comedy.

Director Erle C. Kenton fares better with the Dracula sequence. In spite of killing off Dracula so quickly, the chase scene just before the vampire’s demise is arguably the best chase scene in the entire Universal monster series.  It’s pretty impressive, as it features Dracula driving a horse-driven coach, pursued by police on horseback, and in front of them both, Niemann racing his carnival coaches, while Daniel runs atop the cars to get to the rear coach to toss Dracula’s coffin.  It’s a wildly exciting sequence.

Writer Lowe fares better with the Wolf Man story. In fact, other than the original THE WOLF MAN (1941) this brief appearance by Larry Talbot is one of the series’ best, because it involves his relationship with a gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), who falls in love with Larry and vows to end his pain by shooting him with a silver bullet.  Their classic confrontation is the most emotional of the series for Talbot other than his fateful encounter with his father Sir John (Claude Rains) at the end of the original WOLF MAN. It’s really neat stuff, but sadly, there’s just so little of it.  Chaney’s scenes here are all too brief.

But saddest of all is the treatment of the Frankenstein Monster, here played for the first time by Glenn Strange.  By this point, the Monster is treated only as a “patient” who lies still on a table until the final reel when he gets up only to be quickly done in by the frightened torch wielding villagers. It’s a far cry from Karloff’s original performances.

Alas, the Monster wouldn’t fare any better in HOUSE OF DRACULA. Again, it would take the comedic encounters with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in order for the Monster to return to top form. In fact, in that film, the Monster even talks again! There’s a reason ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN is a classic. It’s hilarious, and for its three monsters, it’s their best screen time in years.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is also blessed with a very strong cast.

Boris Karloff, while not as memorable as he was as the Frankenstein Monster, is very good as Dr. Neimann. His performance is a nice precursor to Peter Cushing’s darker take as Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Films to follow a decade later.

Lon Chaney Jr. knocks it out of the park yet again as both Larry Talbot and the Wolf Man. For years, Chaney has lived in the shadow of the two other Universal stars, Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but as the years have gone by, his performances have grown in stature.  For some, he’s the best actor to have appeared in the Universal monster movies.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is also one of the few times that Chaney and Karloff appeared in a movie together.

I’ve never been a fan of John Carradine’s take on Dracula, in both this movie and HOUSE OF DRACULA the following year.  He certainly makes for a distinguished Count, but he lacks the necessary evil and sensuality needed for the role. Bela Lugosi was originally slated to play Dracula again, which would have been his first time since the 1931 original, but he was unable to appear in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN due to a schedule conflict. Fans would have to wait until ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) before they could see Lugosi play Dracula again, and that would be the second and last time he played Dracula in the movies.

The supporting cast in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is exceptional.

J. Carrol Naish, one of my favorite character actors, is excellent as Daniel, the hunchback. His storyline where he is jealous of Talbot because he also loves Ilonka is one of the better parts of the film. As is Elena Verdugo’s performance as Ilonka. Verdugo makes Ilonka sexy and sympathetic.

The film also features George Zucco in a small role as Professor Bruno Lampini, and Lionel Atwill as yet another police inspector. Sig Ruman is memorable as Burgomaster Hussman. My favorite moment with Ruman is when he wakes up and says to Dracula, “As I was saying—-. I don’t know what I was saying. I fell asleep!”

The lovely Anne Gwynn plays Rita Hussman. Gwynn is the grandmother of actor Chris Pine.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN almost featured yet another Universal monster, as there were plans to include Kharis the Mummy in the film, but these plans were scrapped due to budget constraints.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is certainly not regarded as one of Universal’s monster classics, as it has sequel written all over it and pales in quality compared to films like FRANKENSTEIN (1931), DRACULA (1931), and THE WOLF MAN. Even FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN is a far better film.

All that being said, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN remains a guilty pleasure that I never grow tired of watching. This holiday season, when you’re out and about visiting friends and relatives, make a point to stop by the HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

I hear they have a monstrously good time.

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