The Mummy (Cinema Review)

15 – 110mins – 2017 – 3D


 

ANTIQUITY’S DARKEST SECRET

After Marvel and DC looted the shared universe tomb and ran away with the box office treasure, original pioneers Universal have resurrected their classic Monster movies from the 1930s in a rebooted series known collectively as the Dark Universe, of which bandage-wrapped walking corpse The Mummy – in its third studio incarnation and gallizionth on-screen appearance – is the introductory instalment.

… Keep Scuttling!

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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

The Mummy (Blu-ray Review)

15 – 74mins – 1932 – B&W


 

LOVE NEVER DIES

“Death! Eternal punishment for anyone who opens this casket, in the name of Amon-Ra, King of the Gods”

Directed by Karl Freund, Dracula’s cinematographer (and, if rumours are to be believed, the unofficial director of that picture, too, following Tod Browning’s disorganisation), Boris “Karloff the Uncanny” once more underwent hours in the make-up chair for his second iconic Universal Monster role, this time as mummified Egyptian High Priest Imhotep, who was buried alive 3,700 years ago for attempting to resurrect his forbidden lover.

Returned to life by ignorant archaeologist’s assistant Bramwell Fletcher’s reading of the ancient Scroll of Thoth, Imhotep escapes his tomb to trawl 1930s Cairo under the guise of the deep-eyed and hypnotic “Ardeth Bey”, searching the streets for the reincarnation of Ankh-es-en-amon (Zita Johann).

It’s a classic ‘love conquers all’ story that has been well-mined in the decades since, not only by Stephen Sommer’s popular CGI-laden 1999-2008 remake trilogy, but also in Francis Ford Coppolla’s extravagant Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), which used the same romantic trope to add emotional ballast to the vampire’s immortal bloodlust.

With some truly impressive Egyptian sets and transformation effects, the inclusion of a(n admittedly sparse) musical score, a more dynamic narrative structure incorporating a prologue set 10 years earlier and a fog-shrouded pool to bring in flashbacks to Ancient Egypt, The Mummy feels like a distinct progression beyond its kindred studio predecessors and towards a more modern form of moviemaking, despite coming just a year after both Dracula and Frankenstein.

It does, however, once more fall foul of an all-too-sudden climax, but the appearance of some brief end credits headed by the words “A good cast is worth repeating…” ensured I finished my first time viewing of this iconic genre classic with a broad smile across my chops.

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

Frankenstein – The Restored Version (Blu-ray Review)

PG – 70mins – 1931 – B&W


MAKING A MONSTER

Released to cinemas just nine short months after Dracula’s Valentine’s day bow, Universal soon realised they had another monster hit on their hands with this loose adaptation of Mary Shelley’s iconic morality tale about “The Modern Prometheus”, which would go on to produce a further seven direct sequels – and influence a whole lot more.

For all of Frankenstein’s variations from the gothic source material, this film has become just as culturally significant in its own right. Many of the striking make-up, lighting and cinematography choices director James Whale’s film conjures up (from the creation of a hunchbacked assistant to Boris Karloff’s flat-headed, bolt-necked Monster and his lightning-powered rebirth) have become stock horror tropes to this day, synonymous with the legend.

Opening with a fourth wall shattering “friendly word of warning” to the audience from Von Helsing himself, Edward Van Sloan, we are then transported to an unspecified European village to find controversial scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his obedient assistant, Fritz (Dwight “Renfield” Frye) robbing the graves of the recently deceased to help in their creation of life from death.

Aesthetically resplendent are the many diverse set changes, from medical lecture halls to hill-top laboratories racked with storms so to embrace “all the electrical secrets of heaven”. However, a number of dialogue-heavy and overtly-expository scenes delivered with grave sternness to reiterate “Herr Frankenstein’s mad dream” slow the pace to a crawl before we’ve even reached those two most crucial words… “It’s Aliiiiive!”

The same diminishing effect is also brought about by later scenes of the eponymous scientist’s exuberant wedding festivities. As smart as it is to inter-cut joy with the escaped Monster’s tragic drowning of an innocent child, too much filler does zap any flow from the narrative, dampening the cumulative effect of the horror and leading to a thoroughly lacklustre and uneven plot.

The townsfolk converging into a pitchfork rabble to hunt the dangerous creature to a fiery windmill crescendo is effectively tense and climatic, particularly the Monster’s throwing of his (ragdoll) master onto the spinning blades, however I never felt like Karloff’s lumbering undead oaf was ever successfully established as a tender or misunderstood naïve, rather as a snarling, heavy-handed mute brute with an “abnormal brain”.

I accept that he did not ask to be brought into existence, or to have the brain of a criminal, however you never really pity the tormented individual like you should. Furthermore, the epilogue baiting an heir to continue on Frankenstein’s work feels horrendously tacked on and disappointingly commercialised, leaving me with the overall opinion that for all of its undoubtedly iconic imagery, Frankenstein is a flawed and uneven early creation – ironically much like its monster.

CR@B Verdict: 3 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