The Party (DVD Review)

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15 – 68mins – 2017


 

REVELATORY REVELLERS

At a dinner party for a few close friends to commemorate Janet’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) political victory and ministerial appointment, her husband Bill (Timothy Finding Your Feet Spall) derails the celebrations with a pair of explosive revelations which have catastrophic ramifications for the majority of those present. Will everyone make it out of The Party alive…?

… Keep Scuttling!

THORNHILL (Book Review)

Written and illustrated by: Pam Smy

Published in the UK by: David Fickling Books / Publication date: 27th August 2017

Pages: 544


A TIMELESS FRIENDSHIP

Weighing in at a daunting 544 pages, APU graduate and Cambridge lecturer Pam Smy’s debut solo work (the first she has both written and illustrated) is actually a deceptively quick read, and one which I blasted through in a matter of hours.

… Keep Scuttling!

Bride of Frankenstein (Blu-ray Review)

15 – 75mins – 1935 – B&W


 

THE MONSTER’S MATE

“Be fruitful and multiply!”

Despite some flagrant concessions to lazy sequel syndrome (both ‘dead’ leads from 1931’s adapted predecessor conveniently survived apparent deaths; the same ‘man thrown from precipice’ climax is recycled) and yet more awkward tonal shifts from Universal Studio’s go-to director, James The Invisible Man Whale (from inhumane horror to hysterical humour in the space of a poorly-delivered line), this universe-broadening follow-up is otherwise an all-together superior and more refined monster.

A remarkably post-modern framing device sets the quality bar sky-high from the off, with Bride introduced by Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) ‘herself’, niftily recanting the original tale and teasing her lofty literary circle of Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton) that more is to come…

“The monster lived right through the fire…”

By bringing back both human catalyst Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his lumbering creation (Boris The Mummy Karloff), and by using the controversial scientist’s flamboyant Peter Cushing-esque mentor, Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), to coerce a “supreme collaboration” in the unholy quest to make life in God’s own image, you could accuse screenwriter William Hurlbut of orchestrating a carbon rehash of the urtext’s plot. The third time you hear the iconic catchphrase, you might feel things are being played far too safe.

However, some truly gobsmacking FX (for its day) in bringing Pretorius’ “mini monarchs” to life, and some gravitas-delivering character development for Karloff’s shamed outcast-in-hiding truly elevates this envelope-pushing production. The scene is cribbed from the hiding in a shed subplot described in Shelley’s original text (“Alone, bad. Friend, good”), but such emotional depth was largely absent from the first film, much to its detriment.

Elsa Lanchester has an electrifying effect in the second of her dual roles. Despite a scandalous lack of screen time (all of 5 climatic minutes), her twitchy and erratic portrayal of the titular mate-order Bride is an iconic revelation, delivering a cruel and crushing judgement to the hopeful-yet-ignorant Monster which makes for a bravely downbeat last-gasp dénouement: “We belong dead.”

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

The Invisible Man (Blu-ray Review)

12 – 72mins – 1933 – B&W


 

THE PHANTOM MENACE

Overcoming an avalanche of production issues and cast and crew shake ups which would have derailed many lesser film studios, it’s remarkable that Universal’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1897 “fantastic sensation” even made it to the screen – much less that it is now considered a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” work of art worthy of preservation by the US National Film Registry.

If I’m being bluntly honest, I feel it falls somewhat short of such an honour, but the fact that two screenwriters were fired, a director left and the first choice of leading man (Boris The Mummy Karloff) was pushed away due to salary cuts before production even began – and then a fire on an exterior set caused considerable damage during filming – I feel somewhat obliged to forgive James Frankenstein Whale’s film its tonal inconsistency.

Claude Rains eventually stepped into the (largely unseen) role of bandage-swathed scientist Dr. Jack Griffin, who was interrupted while experimenting with a dangerous drug called monocane, turned him transparent – and raving mad. With his obsession for a “reign of terror” overpowering his commitment to researching an anecdote to his condition, it is up to Sussex police, villagers, colleagues (Henry Travers, William Harrigan) and Griffin’s fiancée (Gloria Stuart) to bait the madman into stopping his killing spree.

I will confess that that synopsis sounds suitably terrifying for a Universal Monster Movie, however some outrageously theatrical and melodramatic acting – particularly from the innkeeper’s screeching wife (Una O’Connor) – somewhat deter from the film’s initially mysterious ambiance in introducing the “disfigured stranger” one snowy night. Things almost descend into outright farce when a local bobby chases the disembodied voice around his hotel room – all that’s missing is the Benny Hill theme!

“How can I handcuff a bloomin’ scarf?!”

Thankfully, any comedic excess cannot diminish the creepiness of Griffin’s first on-screen undressing, cackling maniacally as he disrobes to reveal his “eaten away” appearance (or lack thereof). It is in its remarkably impressive effects work that The Invisible Man excels, not only in its extensive ‘ghost’ shots, but a rather spectacular car and train crash in the final act presents a grander scale and more menacing edge, sharpening the film’s frivolous self-indulgence.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

Under the Cherry Moon (DVD Review)

12 – 96mins – 1986 – B&W


 

BUSINESS (OR) PLEASURE

“With love there is no death.”

Being a lifelong Michael Jackson fan I’ve always been aware of Prince, but my true fandom didn’t kick-in until I belatedly purchased Warner Bros. electrifying 2001 Best Of in the lead up to the Purple One’s commercial resurgence with Musicology (2004). Over the subsequent twelve years I have devoured every major new release (be it download only, newspaper-mounted or conventionally available) whilst also dipping into the prolific artist’s vast back catalogue.

Unsurprisingly, I’m still playing catch-up, and while I’ve watched his big screen bow in Purple Rain (1984) multiple times, his unconnected follow-up two years later had never made its way into my DVD player – despite sitting on my shelf since 2008! It’s tragic that it has taken his premature passing for me to pull my finger out and finally break the seal on Under the Cherry Moon.

As well as taking the lead as goofy hustler Christopher Tracey, Prince also contributed the soundtrack (in the form of the Parade album, with backing band The Revolution) and stepped behind the camera to direct! The confident auteur’s framing and choice of shots belays his inexperience, however the first time director overindulges horribly in intense stares and extravagant campery from his cast.

“Mirror, mirror, seventeen-fold, who’s the sexiest dressed in gold?”

Shot in B&W to add a touch of class to this often tongue-in-cheek satire of the sheltered circus of the over-privileged upper class, Christopher Tracey and “business partner” Tricky (Jerome Benton of The Time) are American musicians playing bars – and wealthy women – on the French Riviera. But when the pair set out to swindle a 21-year-old heiress (Kristin Scott Thomas in her feature debut) out of her trust fund, Tracey doesn’t count on falling for his mark…

“It’s dishonest work, but it’s a living.”

Full of silly faces, catty quips (“Give her that Bela Lugosi look,”) and childish silliness (“Cabbage head!”), the tone is a bizarre and uneven choice. Tracey and Tricky are frequently being called out for being “punks,” “peasants” and “gigolos,” but seem to revel in their underhanded roguishness with unlikable bravado. Tracey is a dick, at one point out-and-out bullying KST’s Mary Sharon, but Prince’s playful charisma overpowers the uncouthness, retaining his music video exuberance for 90 minutes.

“Girls and Boys” is the only musical number integrated into the narrative, while “Kiss” is perfectly placed at a crucial point and the “Mountains” music video plays underneath the end credits. Even as the drama ramps up with Mary’s disapproving father (Steven Berkoff) setting out to end the mismatched romance once and for all, the inappropriate histrionics continue uncaged, leading to an overwrought conclusion. It is narratively unearned but now hauntingly pertinent…

“He ain’t ready, Lord… Not him, not now!”

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

Dracula’s Daughter (DVD Review)

PG – 64mins – 1936 – B&W


DADDY’S LITTLE GHOUL

With Van – sorry, Von – Helsing’s (Edward Van Sloan) return in a linking, but ultimately subsidiary, role from 1931’s iconic Dracula, and with screenwriter Garrett Fort again on script duty, you would think that Universal’s first vampire sequel was always planned this way, but it turns out that the film we ended up with was at least five drafts, two screenwriters, three directors and innumerable cast members away from the hit monster-movie studio’s original plans.

Ostensibly based on Dracula’s Guest, a “lost chapter” by Bram Stoker which was released as a short story long after his epistolary novel became a success, this money-motivated filmic follow-up (which weighs in at a featherweight one hour and four minutes, including opening title cards) actually bears precious little resemblance to the source material.

Following on directly from Bela Lugosi’s coffin-bound staking in Carfax Abbey, Dracula’s Daughter begins promisingly with a stoic Von Helsing being carted off to Scotland Yard by two bumbling policemen, who guard the murdered bodies of Drac (a wax bust to save Lugosi showing up for a lifeless cameo) and Renfield at the morgue.

Enter the mysterious Hungarian Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who mesmerises poor bobby Albert (Billy Bevan) so to steal away her cursed father’s corpse and purge it in flames, in the hope it will break the spell and release her to once more live among the living. Sadly, Holden never comes across as particularly evil or troubled, only distant (uninvested?). Her aide/inabler Sandor (Irving Pichel), however, is a far more menacing individual – even if his role is never really pinpointed.

When purging fails, Zaleska turns to psychiatric help to battle her unwelcome impulses from beyond the grave. She becomes convinced that pioneering doctor Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), who works in hypnosis, is the key to freeing her from her father’s bloodsucking will. By ‘coincidence’, Garth is already linked to Dracula’s case, having been hired by the incarcerated Von Helsing in lieu of a lawyer!!

Despite clocking in at little over an hour, there is still ample filler in the strained and stretched plot, with a Scotland shooting party, a news montage and prank phone calls from Garth’s infatuated assistant Jane (Marguerite Churchill) all bulking up an otherwise verbose and terror-free story which doesn’t really get going until Zaleska flees back to Transylvania with a kidnapped Jane with ten minutes to go.

With the Countess only daring to reveal so much of her backstory to Garth, progression stalls in sluggish repetitive talk of the occult. Fort drops in a couple of riffs on the original legend, particularly when the Countess attends a swanky London cocktail party and is offered a drink, however Holden’s plain delivery lacks any tonal variation and the line falls flat.

With justice, science and supernatural folklore coming together, the clashing of ideologies and ideas in this probing sequel are to be praised, however the lack of any real horror or action deprives this narrative of any pace, and I soon tired of all the talk. It’s a shame, as Dracula’s Daughter opened brightly, but too many changes and concessions ultimately lead to a truncated and unimpressive experience and I soon realised why this was left off of Universal’s 2012 blu-ray Monsters boxset.

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars

Dracula – The Restored Version (Blu-ray Review)

PG – 74mins – 1931 – B&W


WALPURGIS NIGHT

Excluding a silent take on The Phantom of the Opera in 1925 (which would be remade two decades later to great Oscar success), Tod Browning’s gothic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s immortal bloodsucker is often credited as the first in a seemingly never-ending production line of popular monster movies from Universal Studios throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s. It also occupies the first disc in a digitally restored high-def. box set of eight of the studio’s greatest genre flicks called Universal Monsters – The Essential Collection (2012), which I have gluttonously devoured recently.

Donning the now instantly recognisable cape and perfecting a hauntingly hypnotic stare, screen legend Bela Lugosi curls his Hungarian tongue around the Stoker-inspired script (“I never drink… wine”), which was actually adapted from a 1927 Broadway stage play, rather than straight from the page. This explains some of the more curious alterations from the 1897 source material – most obviously, it is Renfield (Dwight Frye) we follow on his business trip to Transylvania instead of Jonathan Harker (David Manners) at the film’s opening.

Nevertheless, the terse narrative still gallops apace, and Frye’s transformation from sound and logical solicitor to insipid, crazy-eyed, fly-craving vampire’s “pet looney” is scene-stealing. Also impressive are the vast gothic sets and the fog-shrouded portrayal of London’s cobbled streets. Such pitch-perfect atmosphere more than makes up for the plastic “bats” on strings and armadillos (!!) scuttling about Dracula’s shadowy castle, as well as a near-complete absence of score (besides an aged hiss).

“There are far worse things awaiting man… than death.”

Screenwriter Garrett Fort’s dialogue is also remarkably colourful and descriptive, perhaps knowingly making up for the budgetary and special effects limitations of the time. “Rats, rats… millions of them!” we are told, but most of the movie magic takes place off-screen, leaving us with an aptly stagey production comprising of long, largely static shots.

For this reason, the newspaper headline inserts upon the seafaring Demeter’s Vesta’s crash-landing on British shores impressed me by varying the delivery of exposition in a very postmodern manner. However, the curt and tension-less conclusion left me cold and craving a more satisfying resolution, reminded me how few classic films employed epilogues in their sprint for completion.

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars