Monday, 18 August 2014

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)



The Ghost of Frankenstein is an intriguing film, which can be loved or not depending on the perspective from which is viewed. While a fast paced, entertaining B-movie on its own, it also shows how far the Universal Horror franchise had moved from its origins, in terms of both character and execution.

Set after the events of Son of Frankenstein, the previous film in the franchise (with a town meeting providing some handy flashback and plot info), the film starts with an angry mob blowing up Castle Frankenstein to finally draw a line under the Doctor's experiments, and those of his son. However, this (somehow) actually has the effect of freeing Frankenstein's monster (Lon Chaney Jr) from the sulphur pits that were trapping him. Frankenstein's assistant Ygor (Bela Lugosi) has also, miraculously, survived and the two flee to the nearby town of Vasaria, where a second, previously unmentioned Frankenstein son lives. He is also a Doctor, working with his assistant Dr Bohmer (Lionel Attwill) on a method for transplanting brains. Seeing an opportunity to test his theories, Frankenstein arranges to replace the damaged brain of the monster with a healthy one – but Ygor and Bohmer have other ideas.

It is hard to criticise The Ghost of Frankenstein for being what it is – a fast moving, atmospheric, hokey piece of entertainment, with all the tropes we associate with the genre, such as monsters, scientists, laboratories, lightning and angry mobs. Despite a fairly high amount of expositional dialogue, the script races through the storyline, and at 67 minutes long, the film does not out stay its welcome.

The star of the show is definitely Lugosi, reprising his role from Son of Frankenstein, giving a playful performance that is great fun to watch. Less successful is Lon Chaney JR taking on the role of the monster, as he lacks the pathos that Boris Karloff brought to the role and the and self-awareness, leaving a creature who is no longer a tragic monster, but simply a monster. Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays Frankenstein as less manic and intense than his predecessors but still gives the character some dignity, while Lionel Attwill is underused, but still makes the most of his scenes, always at his best playing a slimy, power hungry villain.

The direction, by Erle C. Kenton, is competent if unimaginative (apart from a few interesting height perspective shots involving the monster and a little girl), and is certainly no match for the ground-breaking work James Whale did with Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, or the arch humour of those films. However, in fairness to Kenton, his budget was clearly no match either, and he still manages to produce some good model effects with Castle Frankenstein, as well as a laboratory full of gadgets, bubbling beakers and fizzing electrical coils.

One interesting new development from the previous films is the role of the lynch mob and the audience feeling towards this. Whereas it was possible to empathise with the Karloff monster when being hounded by a torch and pitchfork wielding crowd, the Chaney version is less sympathetic, so when a child is threatened and villagers killed by him, the anger and fright felt is more understandable than from those just lashing out at something that they do not understand.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of The Ghost of Frankenstein may depend on the context that you watch it in. Within the cycle of Universal Horror, particularly the Frankenstein series, it can be seen a sad comedown from the glory days of the Whale films. However, watched on its own terms it is still great fun, and a breezy slice of monsters, mobs, and mad scientists.


Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A Liar's Autobiography (2012)






When Monty Python’s Flying Circus took the stage in London earlier this year, they were one member short. Graham Chapman, the hedonist, reformed alcoholic, pipe smoking, qualified medical doctor had passed away from cancer in 1989. Three years before that he had recorded himself readings extracts from his only telling of his life story, “A Liar’s Autobiography”, and it is these that form the basis of the film of the same name. However, the animated visuals that accompany the soundtrack rarely do justice to the words, and the sloppy overall tone soon becomes irritating.

Along the way learn something of his life, growing up in the Midlands with a no-nonsense policeman dad, studying medicine at Cambridge, meeting John Cleese, breaking into the world of television, coming out as an openly gay man, fame with Monty Python, 70s hedonism with rock star pals in LA, and a last few years of sobriety. We also learn a little of his character, his interest in and knowledge of science and medicine making a perfect contradictory counterpoint to his surreal outlook on life and hedonistic, staggeringly unhealthy lifestyle.

However, it soon becomes apparent that we are learning all of this purely from listening to Chapman talk, with the visuals at best adding nothing, and worst becoming distracting and grating. This is not to say that individual bits are not without merit, such as an astonishing sequence involving fighter pilots becoming overwhelmed with lust for each other, which plays like something from a William Burroughs novel. Far from being gratuitous, the scene links together several strands of Chapman's character and past, such as growing up during, World War Two, reading the stiff upper lip exploits of fictional hero fighter pilot Biggles, his sexuality, and his rugged macho image and interests, such as rugby, and mountain climbing. The credits list over a dozen different animation studios and while this may have been an attempt to capture the anarchy and randomness that Chapman brought to his work, the combined result feels like a tiresome mess.

Sadly having four of the five remaining Pythons (Eric Idle is the only one not involved) to voice the characters in the life of Chapman adds little to the film. Instead of creating characters, they mostly sound like they are halfheartedly reading lines of a piece of paper that has just been handed to them, while the use of Cameron Diaz as the voice of Sigmund Freud is just pointless stunt casting

So, what is the point of this film? Fair enough, the directors did not want to do a straightforward biography, and certainly, Chapman did not with his book. The stories may be largely untrue, but you can still learn plenty about people from tall tales. Beyond a brief mention of watching Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller perform Beyond the Fringe on television, the film does not explore any of the roots of Chapman's comedy, such as BBC Radio comedy like The Goon Show. There is also little mention of his long-term partner David Sherlock, who stuck with him through the darkest days of boozing, right through to the end of Chapman’s life. Python fans will not learn anything new, and non-fans just will not learn anything much.




Monday, 11 August 2014

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)








Magic in the Moonlight is an affable, distracting, but ultimately unsatisfactory effort from Woody Allen. The whole thing looks great, the actors do a good job with what they are given, but the central premise is spread far too thinly to carry a feature length film, and the dialogue is clunky and awkward.

Colin Firth plays Stanley, a world famous illusionist, better known as Wei Ling Soo, who is roped in by an old friend and fellow magician to unmask a psychic, Sophie (Emma Stone) who is preying on a wealthy friend of his. At first, Stanley thinks this will be a simple task, but as he gets more involved, he finds himself starting to doubt his materialistic worldview. Could Sophie really have the power to talk to the dead? In addition, could Stanley be falling in love with her?

The problem, as is so often the case with modern Woody Allen films, is the script, which feels rushed and poorly thought out, and fails on several levels. Firstly, the central idea, essentially "is it a bad thing to believe in an illusion if it makes you happy?" is interesting and thought provoking, but thinly stretched over a feature length film. Allen has done multiple storyline films before, such as Hannah and Her Sisters or Crimes and Misdemeanours, and maybe that approach would have worked better here. To his credit, despite Allen’s well known atheist leanings, he does not lecture or polemicize in the script.

Secondly, none of the characters feel as though they are real people, and are only the doing the things they do because the script says so, not because that is what the character would do. Stanley’s conversion from devout atheist to true believer in the afterlife is not in the slightest bit convincing, (especially given his “thorough” testing of Sophie seems to consist of one séance and her telling him things about his beloved aunt), and neither is the idea of a love affair between Stanley and Sophie.

Thirdly, is the dialogue, which is grating, clunky and artificial sounding, something that perhaps reads better on a page than coming out of somebody's mouth.

Finally, and I have no idea if this is done for budgetary or artistic reasons, but there is far too much “tell don’t show”, with interminable scenes of characters explaining what has happened off screen, or how they feel, giving some of the film a turgid lifeless feel. Noticeably absent is any version of "The Woody Allen character", a staple of his films, whether played by Allen or an impersonator such as John Cusack in Bullets over Broadway. This character can usually be relied upon to inject some life into any situation, with his neuroses and collection of good one liners (another element missing from this film - it simply is not funny)

However, if the script is lacking in depth, detail and poetry, then the production design certainly is not. The costumes, cars and country estates all look wonderful, but beyond that, help to make the Great Gatsby meets Wodehouse world completely believable. The music, another staple of Allen films is well chosen, a mix of well-known and more obscure big band songs from the era.

Sadly, though, these elements on their own cannot save the film, and Magic in the Moonlight goes on the "pleasant but forgettable" pile of Woody Allen films. A shame, as he has shown with Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris that when he spends a bit of time crafting the script he can still make interesting, thought provoking and funny work. The Allen juggernaut roles ever onwards with shooting underway on his latest film, so, who knows - maybe next time?





Tuesday, 5 August 2014

R.O.T.O.R. (1987)

Plenty of films are bad, but only a select few take it to a supreme level of incompetence, breaking all of the rules and logic of how to make a motion picture. R.O.T.O.R is definitely one of these, a film where the creators make baffling choice after baffling choice on nearly every level of the finished product, creating a truly unhinged world where anything can happen.

Made in 1987, this was presumably put together to cash in on the contemporary success of Robocop and the still recent success of The Terminator. The Dallas Police Department has decided that the only thing that stands between them and the end of civilisation is an army of mechanised law enforcers. Their dedicated robotics department is working on a prototype, R.O.T.O.R. (Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research), but when this unfinished creation is accidentally activated, it goes on a murderous vendetta against one woman. Can the machine’s creator, Dr Coldyron (pronounced Cold-Iron) stop it before a bloodbath occurs?

Now if all of that sounds like a straightforward, albeit derivative, film, then that is because I have left out the details, and the details are what make this so brilliant. A few of my favourites include:

1. Every one of the scientists involved knew that the robot could either be a success or a genocidal maniac – but they still went ahead with it anyway
2. Despite it being many years from completion, the robot already has a locker with a perfectly fitting uniform already there for him. 
3. The police headquarters parking lot looks like a used car showroom, with a shiny new motorbike, ready and waiting to be ridden off.
4. In case you are concerned you do not know enough about Coldyron and his morning routine the film opens with a ten MINUTE sequence, detailing his love of making coffee, riding horses, giving coffee to his horses and blowing up tree stumps before driving to work
5. Despite supposedly being years away from completing the artificial intelligence, they already have a seemingly fully cognizant droid – a sassy little sidekick called Willard, complete with police cap, a gun, and a back chatting attitude 

6. R.O.T.O.R has a moustache

Characters and plot strands come and go seemingly at random, such as Coldyron’s disappearing girlfriend, or the co-creator of R.O.T.O.R who is never mentioned until the last 20 minutes, and just happens to be a muscle bound martial arts expert. These sort of touches give the whole thing a hysterical almost dreamlike feel that is always entertaining. 

Then, there is the dialogue, which is up there with the best of the surreal stream of consciousness poetry of Ed Wood. My favourite quotes include “It's like a chainsaw set on frappe”, “Fire me and I'll make more noise than two skeletons making love in a tin coffin” and “The only difference between a hero and a villain is the amount of compensation they take for their services”. If you think I am taking these out of context for cheap laughs, then, believe me, they do not make any more sense in context.

The only truly painful bits are the attempts at ironic self-commentary through lines like “What do you think this is a bad Sci-Fi film?” and “Bet this is how Terminator started”. Thankfully, the rest of R.O.T.O.R displays a magnificent lack of self-awareness by the makers. A never give up and never think things through attitude that is almost heroic and gives this film a well-deserved places in the crapola Hall of Fame.




Monday, 4 August 2014

Victim (1961)




Controversial when released and still absorbing viewing today, Victim was made at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, and reminds us that this country has made great strides in gay rights in the last 50 years. It also helped Dirk Bogarde make the transition from matinee idol to art house darling.

When a young gay man commits suicide in his police cell, it sets off a chain of events that sees high flying (and closeted) London barrister Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) become a victim of a pair of blackmailers. Wracked with own guilt at the death, Farr risks his career and marriage to try to bring them to justice.

Rather than resort to tired old clichés of presenting gay men as deviants or limp-wristed comic relief, screenwriters Janet Green and John McCormick, along with director Basil Dearden take time to build compassion and sympathy for the characters, dispelling any accusations of exploitation and avoiding heavy handed moralising. Cleverly, placing this in the familiar context of a standard crime film plot may have helped them introduce the themes to the mainstream audience of the time.

The complex character of Farr, and the dignity that Bogarde gives him, helps make this more than worthy but dull soap opera. He is driven by a sense of justice and a wish to make amends for his part in the suicide and so does not undertake his sacrifice lightly, nor does he expect a very happy conclusion to the tale. Nevertheless, there is a noticeable ambiguity in his feelings towards his wife Laura, (played by Sylvia Sims) that implies he may genuinely love her, but he could also have married her for the sake of appearances.

Laura is, unexpectedly, just as fascinating a character. Rather than just being the archetypal 60s middle class stay at home housewife, she is independent enough to get a day job working with troubled schoolchildren. She is also not naive about her husband, knowing full well that he had been in relationships with men before they had got together, something that does not change her love for him, and gives the script an emotional maturity that acknowledges that real feelings are not turned on and off like a light switch.

Some aspects of how sexuality is presented feel a little dated or patronising nowadays. This question of where Farr's attraction lies is presented as an either/or choice and, nowhere is it considered that he could be bisexual. Meanwhile, the other gay characters are depicted as helpless and passive victims of the law and the blackmailers, victims unable or unwilling to help themselves and victims who need to rescued, by Farr and the police.

The anti-gay characters, whether blackmailers or police, are one-dimensional and never really given much screen time or depth, beyond a few brief "it's not natural" style speeches. Fascinatingly, when unmasked, the blackmailers turnout to be a puritanical bigot, and a man who, with his leather jacket and slightly camp manner seems to be, the film is suggesting without ever confirming, gay

Not surprisingly, getting Victim made was not an easy process given the subject matter, which, regardless of how acceptable it may or may not have been in the eyes of society, was still illegal in the eyes of the law. The common practise at the time was for producers to submit scripts to the BBFC in order to tackle problem areas before they made it to the camera. In his book "Censored - The Story of Film Censorship in Britain", Tom Dewe Matthews tells of BBFC memos stating "the acceptance of homosexuality is too ready in this script" and after filming the censors still demanded the removal of key scenes that challenged stereotypes of gay men as upper class fops who are helpless slaves to their sexual urges. Nevertheless, Dearden managed to keep one key scene intact, where Farr admits to his wife that he got involved with the man who committed suicide because he was attracted to him. However innocuous this may seem nowadays, it was, according to Matthews, the first time that a gay man had come out in a British film.

The film would also prove to be a defining moment for its Dirk Bogarde, and although it would not completely lead to the end of lighthearted fare such as the “Doctor in...” series of films that he had become associated with, it certainly would lay the groundwork for the next phase of his career. His commitment to starring in films with controversial subject matter would see him in projects ranging from the creepy mind games of The Servant to the Nazi S&M themed The Night Porter.

It is impossible to quantify the extent to which Victim contributed to the eventual passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality. Despite being the X certificate, it was reportedly a success at the UK box office, buoyed by publicity from the ensuing media coverage, and may have acted, like Farr, as a catalyst for change. However, with the liberal or at least laissez-faire, attitudes of the police depicted in the film, it may have just been reflecting the increasing acceptance and desire for change in the wider public. Either way, viewed as a social document or a very English piece of liberal agitprop, it remains a great thriller and a reminder that the "good old days" were not always good for everyone.




Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker (1982)


The British Government Video Nasties list is as eclectic and perplexing in its make up today as it was 30 years ago. While there are some undisputed and famous classics (Evil Dead, Tenebrae) and some bona fide stinkers (Don't Go Near the Park, Cannibal Terror), there are also some flawed and fascinating gems, such as Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker (aka Nightmare Maker, Night Warning, The Evil Protégé). Despite the flat made-for-TV look, the oppressive atmosphere, transgressive subject matter and flashes of violence make for compulsive viewing

Orphaned as a boy, high school basketball star Billy Lynch (Jimmy McNichol) has been raised by his aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrell). When Cheryl kills a TV repairman who spurns her advances, bigoted police detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson), tries to frame Billy, convinced that the killing was the result of a homosexual love triangle involving Billy's basketball coach. However, Aunt Cheryl has been growing increasingly enamoured with Billy - and she is not going to let him go without a fight.

This is a real stand out both from the Video Nasties list and the slasher film genre more generally. Even though it has some of the ingredients of the latter (knives, blood and teenagers), it also has elements of a teenage coming-of-age story, and hints of Southern Gothic Melodrama. With a few tweaks to the script, toning down the violence and making the sexual subject matter less explicit, you could almost imagine Joan Crawford and Montgomery Clift starring in a version of this story, and certainly Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Crawford’s performance in that has to be one of the influences.

Rather than suspense or cheap shocks, the focus here is more on the characters. Genre favourite Svenson plays Detective Carlson as an obnoxious, pig headed, testosterone filled tower of hate, while Tyrell gives a performance so unhinged and disturbing that it is sometimes easy to forget that you are watching a performance.

Against this Billy is always going make a bit less of an impression as a character, but interestingly the script focusses more on the torment that he goes through, both from his harassment at the hands of the law, and harassment at the hands of his aunt, as well as the normal pressures of teenage life.

Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker is also unusual for the genre in the fact that it explores rather than exploits the issue of teenage homosexuality. Granted this is more based around Billy being wrongly thought of as gay, but the bigotry Carlson represents is chilling enough, and anyone who has any experience of growing up in the slightest bit different from the norm in a small town will identify with Billy and his situation.

Director William Asher had a day job making TV shows such as Bewitched, and The Dukes of Hazzard, and it unfortunately shows in the direction that is a bit flat and pedestrian. That said he does create a suitably oppressive gloomy atmosphere that matches the oppressive small town life.

Despite being a lot less gory than other horror films of the time, Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker still ended up labelled a Video Nasty. I can only assume the government looked at the subject matter not the film in this case, but perhaps at least the notoriety has saved it from total obscurity, as it is an unsettling piece of work and well worth a look.