by Steve Habrat
Considering how popular the classic Universal Studios monsters have become over the years, it’s no big surprise that the studio keeps digging them out of their graves. With remakes of three of their biggest ghouls already on the market (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, and Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy), it makes sense for the studio to update one of their last big name monsters for modern audiences. In 2010, director Joe Johnston released The Wolfman, a CGI heavy update of George Waggner’s haunting 1941 classic that starred Lon Chaney Jr. With two Oscar winners in front of the camera and Rick Baker in charge of the werewolf make-up effects, The Wolfman should have been a smashing success, but there are several elements that caused the film to come out a major disappointment. While The Wolfman drips atmosphere and gothic set design that would make Tim Burton drool, this werewolf offering seems formulaic and misguided. At times it seems to want to be an action movie and the climax features a fight scene that looks like it would have been more at home in The Matrix rather than Universal monster movie. And then there is Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, two award winners who deliver some of the most lifeless performances of their careers.
The Wolfman reintroduces us to Lawrence Talbot (played by Benicio Del Toro), a renowned Shakespearean actor with a traumatic past. When he was just a young boy, he witnessed his mother’s gruesome demise, and in the wake of the discovery, his father, Sir John Talbot (played by Anthony Hopkins), shipped him off to an insane asylum. One evening, John receives news that his brother, Ben, has mysteriously disappeared. Lawrence returns home to Blackmoor where he is met with news that his brother’s body was found mutilated. As Lawrence comes to terms with his brother’s death, he attempts to reconnect with his father and he strikes up a relationship with his brother’s fiancé, Gwen Conliffe (played by Emily Blunt). One night, Lawrence decides to visit a local gypsy that his brother was said to have associated with. While visiting the gypsies, the camp is attacked by what appears to be a giant wolf. During the attack, Lawrence suffers a bite that leaves him bedridden and suffering from horrific nightmares. With the town in hysterics over the violent attacks, Inspector Aberline (played by Hugo Weaving) arrives from London to launch an investigation before more bodies turn up. After being unconscious for many days, Lawrence wakes up and he initially believes he is okay, but when the moon is full, Lawrence undergoes a horrible transformation that turns him into a snarling monster. To make things worse, horrific family secrets come back to haunt Lawrence and new details about his mother’s death slowly start to emerge.
With Johnston kicking things off with the shimmering retro Universal Studios logo, you’d think that The Wolfman would remain a grounded tribute to what Waggner terrified audiences with back in 1941, but you quickly realize that is far from the truth. The opening werewolf attack is appropriately dark and gloomy, but it’s fairly obvious that this film is going to be drenched in rubbery CGI that instantly takes us out of the moment. And that is just the start of it. When blurry werewolves aren’t speeding across the screen, Johnston and Baker are having an extremely difficult time meshing the practical make-up effects glued to Del Toro’s face with the CGI extensions that are there to add some extra menace. We know Baker can do practical, especially after what he delivered with 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, but it seems that Universal urged the filmmakers to cut corners with the practical effects, something that is perplexing when we consider what exactly Universal is remaking. Part of the appeal of the classic Universal monsters is their practicality—the idea that we could almost reach out and touch them. They are unnervingly real, even if we can see some of the lines in their make-up. When the Wolfman starts leaping, slashing, and killing here, it feels more like its playing out in the pages of an old EC Comic. It’s almost an insult to the original film rather than a loving tribute.
While the copious amounts of CGI hold it back, The Wolfman does excel in the set design and costume department. The shots of 18th century London are absolutely exquisite. There is a grittiness to the city shots but there is also plenty of glamour to be found, especially when Johnston delivers a shot of the Wolfman crouched on a gothic gargoyle while howling at the full moon. It’s spectacular and it certainly holds up on a high-definition television. When we get to explore the Talbot manor, Johnston presents a shadowy mansion that you could very well see Dracula prowling around. There are cobwebs dangling from the staircase railing and there are dead leaves scattered about the marble floors. There are closed off rooms with ghosts of traumatic years past and characters peek through the darkness with candelabras in their clutches. The outdoor gardens are tangled vines that died many years ago and the local villages are as muddy and cruddy as they can get. Then there is the insane asylum, which features patients crouched in their cells wrapped in straight jackets. There is an observation room that is a stand in for a massive coffin, a maze that traps in a slew of doctors as they wait to see if Lawrence will really transform into a chopping werewolf. If there is any reason to see The Wolfman, it’s because of the extravagant sets that obviously cost a pretty penny. However, it was disappointing to see Universal remake The Wolfman and not give us a few scenes in a foggy forest. Here, we do get an eerie forest, but it never features the rolling sheets of fog that crept by Chaney’s hairy feet.
What is perhaps the most frustrating part of The Wolfman is just how miscast Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins truly are. Del Toro certainly resembles Lon Chaney Jr., but there is also something faintly hard about the man that prevents us from viewing him as a tragic character doomed to a hellish fate. There are scenes where he seems be settling into the character, but some of the more dramatic moments seem put on. There is never any of the nervous shifting and antsy unease that kept Chaney pacing in his room waiting for the inevitable. Meanwhile, Hopkins is asked to fill the enormous shoes of Claude Rains, who portrayed Sir John as a compassionate but rational man who grapples with the wild story his son tells of a werewolf taking a chunk out of his chest. It’s best not to say too much about his role, but Hopkins seems all to eager to give away the big reveal. Blunt seems to enjoy playing the misty-eyed damsel in distress and mourning love interest. She isn’t given much to do beyond holding Lawrence’s head and skip stones at a local pond, but there is something about her character that you just can’t resist. Hugo Weaving rounds out the cast as Inspector Aberline, the rather bland antagonist out to get to the bottom of the brutal slaying happening around Blackmoor. He dashes around with importance and the unblinking determination carved into his face does do the trick, but we never come to truly like or loathe him.
As far as the scares are concerned, with so much CGI artificiality contaminating the screen, The Wolfman is never permitted to become very scary. Hell, not even the howls send a chill! However, if you’re in the market for some serious blood and guts, then you’ve come to the right gothic castle. Bodies are slashed and bitten into hamburger meat, with guts splattered on the autumn ground. Head’s go flying across the screen, werewolf nails shoot through open mouths, and limbs are sent flying through the air with a thin trail of—you guessed it—CGI blood. The gore is extremely entertaining and it is sort of fun to see Universal embracing such savagery, especially when the Wolfman goes berserk in the streets of London. All the savagery does spiral out of control by the end, as Johnston ends The Wolfman with goofy werewolf brawl that finds hairy beats flying all over Talbot manor. You honestly wouldn’t mind so much if they weren’t doing wiry flips and leaps that would have been more at home in The Matrix. Come to think of it, maybe that is why Hugo Weaving is on hand here. Overall, while Universal showered the project in money, The Wolfman 2010 never dares explore the monsters that can lurk in even the mot mild mannered individuals. It falls victim to what almost every other horror film falls victim to: CGI excess. It’s all to eager to top the original rather than acting as a respectful tribute to a classic.
The Wolfman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
While he may not be as popular as Dracula, Frankenstein, or the Mummy, the Invisible Man is still a pretty scary guy. I mean, you can’t see him and he could attack you at anytime! THAT, boys and ghouls, is pretty scary if you ask me. Rooted more in science fiction than straight horror, The Invisible Man is actually one of the best films in the Universal Monster collection. While the sequels didn’t stick as closely to the science fiction/horror mash-up as the original film did, they still managed to remain above average and impressive with their special effects. If you wish to read Corinne Rizzo’s review of the original The Invisible Man, click here. So, without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s mini reviews for the sequels to The Invisible Man. Read on if you dare…
The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe (Played by Vincent Price) has just been sentenced to death for the murder of his brother, a crime that he did not commit. While on death row, Radcliffe is visited by Dr. Frank Griffith (Played by John Sutton), the original Invisible Man’s brother, who injects Radcliffe with the infamous invisibility formula. Radcliffe proceeds to escape from prison and sets out to prove his innocence but along the way, he begins to slip into insanity, a horrific side effect of the invisibility formula.
Never as mischievous as the original 1933 The Invisible Man, The Invisible Man Returns doesn’t shy away from causing plenty of mayhem. Not nearly as heavy on the horror and leaning more towards a mixture of science fiction and murder mystery, The Invisible Man Returns is still given an aura of menace with the presence of Vincent Price, a legend that is mostly heard and only briefly seen. With his gentlemanly coos aimed at his fiancé, Helen Manson (Played by Nan Grey), and his sinister guffaws, Price’s Radcliffe is one unpredictable madman who will prove his innocence at any cost, even if that means killing a few people in the process. As the whodunit slowly unravels for the big reveal, we can’t help but wonder if Radcliffe is really any better than the individuals that he is trying to track down. Price has some great chemistry with Grey, but she isn’t really given much to do other than look worried about Radcliffe’s safety. Cecil Kellaway, another familiar Universal face, also shows up as Inspector Sampson, who pieces together Radcliffe’s disappearance.
Much like the original film, The Invisible Man Returns has some jaw dropping special effects, especially incredible for the time in which the film was made. The effects ended up nabbing an Oscar nomination but it sadly didn’t take the award home. Yet director Joe May doesn’t lean on the impressive special effects even though he very well could and no one would blame him. The film, which is based once again on the story by H.G. Wells, doesn’t find the original invisible man, Jack Griffith (Played brilliantly by Claude Rains), rising from the dead to continue his rampage. The film wisely elaborates and continues the story in a clever and respectable fashion. The Invisible Man Returns also runs a full eighty-one minutes, which allows the storyline to fully develop. Overall, it could have been scarier but there are still plenty of extraordinary shocks and thrills throughout The Invisible Man Returns to keep the story engrossing. Plus, it has Vincent Price and how can you argue with that?! Grade: B+
The Invisible Woman (1940)
Feisty model Kitty Caroll (Played by Virginia Bruce) is tired of being pushed around at her job by her insufferable boss. On a whim, she answers a newspaper add posted by the eccentric Professor Gibbs (Played by John Barrymore), an ad that asks for human guinea pigs for his invisibility machine. Professor Gibbs is on the verge of loosing funding from the wealthy playboy Dick Russell (Played by John Howard) but when the invisibility machine works successfully, he launches a campaign to convince Dick that the machine is fully operational. However, the real challenge comes from trying to contain the mischievous Kitty and fighting off local thugs who want to steal the machine.
What little traces of horror you could find in The Invisible Man Returns disappears completely in The Invisible Woman, which was released the same year as the Vincent Price thriller. A cheeky screwball comedy that is more of a wild party, The Invisible Woman is quite a bit of fun if you are in the market for a whole bunch of laughs, but if it is horror you are after, it is best you look elsewhere. It is a bit odd that this film gets lumped in with the Universal Movie Monsters but the film is still a pretty solid watch on its own terms. It is very difficult not to like Bruce as the playful Kitty, who enjoys getting some hilarious revenge on her snippy boss Growley (Played by Charles Lane). The second half of the film morphs into more of a romantic comedy, with Howard’s playboy Dick falling for the leggy Kitty. The budding romance is sweetly written and delivered by the actors, making it an easy pill to swallow. There is also plenty of silliness thrown in from Barrymore’s Professor Gibbs, who acts as a strict father figure for both Dick and Kitty. There is also plenty of physical comedy from Dick’s butler, George (Played by Charles Ruggles), who is constantly mortified or taking a nasty tumble.
The Invisible Woman’s overall quality is done in by the unnecessary addition of the gangster side plot, which finds sinister thug Blackie (Played by Oskar Homolka), trying to steal the invisibility machine. The only good thing that can be said about this side plot is that it gives Ruggles a break from the physical comedy and places it on the shoulders of a slew of extras. Many of the delivered jokes fall flat, mostly because Homolka just isn’t that funny as the jumpy gangster. Even if it technically isn’t a horror film, The Invisible Woman still applies the invisibility aspect smartly and there are plenty of sly remarks made over the fact that Kitty is nude the entire time. There was quite a bit of controversy surrounding this aspect but by today’s standards, it is rather tame. Overall, The Invisible Woman is a sweet little romantic romp that fits nicely in the romantic comedy genre but trips over a pointless gangster subplot that should have been left out completely. Grade: B
Invisible Agent (1942)
The Invisible Man’s grandson, Frank Raymond (Played by Jon Hall), has been trying to live a quiet and normal life in Manhattan. It turns out that Frank still possesses a small amount of the invisibility formula that drove his grandfather insane. Frank soon finds himself approach by secret agents from the Axis powers, who are determined to get their hands on the formula. Frank refuses and makes a narrow escape with the formula in hand. America is soon dragged into World War II and Frank decides to make a deal with the Army—use the invisibility formula to spy on Nazi Germany. The army agrees and Frank is sent behind enemy lines where he does battle with a slew of S.S. buffoons and falls in love with Maria Sorenson (Played by Ilona Massey), a British secret agent.
Stripping away the romantic comedy and acting as part of a war time propaganda movement to boost American morale, Invisible Agent is much more a thriller with some chuckle worthy aspects. Just as it was in The Invisible Woman, the invisibility is often times played for laughs rather than scares. The comedy really takes flight during a scene in which Frank terrorizes a pudgy S.S. officer who lusts after Maria. When Frank isn’t invisible, he is a fairly forgettable character and he even remains a bit dry when he has injected the formula into his bloodstream (shockingly). Massey is certainly the life of the party but her character often times seems too eager to fall in love rather than do anything constructive. Cedric Hardwicke shows up as Conrad Stauffer, an S.S. officer doing anything he can do get his hands on the invisibility formula. Peter Lorre is handed the job of playing Baron Ikito, a Japanese officer with a thing for amputation (just wait for THAT scene). There is no question that Lorre is the most colorful one in Invisible Agent but his character is so obviously American that it is almost hard to take.
Invisible Agent does have plenty of action to thrill us throughout its eighty-one minute run time. The film has lots of impressive aerial battles that find Frank trying to sneak out of Germany with Hitler’s plot to attack New York City. There are plenty of fiery explosions and narrow escapes to have you on the edge of your seat. The downside is that Frank is such a bland hero that it is hard to really care if he makes it out alive. Invisible Agent also boasts some of the most impressive special effects of the series yet, some of them mind-boggling for the time. Overall, as an action thriller, Invisible Agent executes the mission with ease but you will find yourself starting to long for the science fiction chills of the Claude Rains original. Grade: B-
The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)
Robert Griffith (Played by Jon Hall) escapes from prison and makes his way to London to find Jasper and Irene Herrick (Played by Lester Matthews and Gale Sonergaard), a wealthy couple that Robert believes cheated him out of a small fortune years earlier. When the Herricks turn him away, Robert seeks out Dr. Peter Drury (Played by John Carradine), who has created a formula that can turn a man invisible. After demanding that Dr. Drury test the formula on him, the newly invisible Robert sets out to get revenge on the Herricks.
The Invisible Man’s Revenge finds the Invisible Man series moving away from the comedy that The Invisible Woman and Invisible Agent were so fond of and returning to the horror that kicked the franchise off. Not nearly as absorbing as The Invisible Man or The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Man’s Revenge does wrap up the series in a fairly respectable manner even if the story is starting to fade right before our eyes. The real downside to the film is the fact that there is no sympathetic monster at the heart of the terror. The Universal horror films were notorious for including monsters that we actually felt bad for. The Invisible Man’s Revenge serves up a psychotic villain right from the start and refuses to make him a multifarious character. Claude Rains earned our sympathy through the fact that he was desperately trying to outrun madness but in the end he slipped into it. In The Invisible Man Returns, Vincent Price was a man framed for a crime he didn’t commit and his quest for the truth was causing his sanity to deteriorate.
Then we have Jon Hall, who picks up where Rains and Price left off. Hall, who also appeared in Invisible Agent, does a passable job with the role of Robert but he lacks the unruly insanity of Rains or the creeping terror of Price. Still, Hall manages to outshine everyone else in the film, as the rest of the characters seem to disappear from memory when the credits roll. Universal regular Carradine steps in as the gentle doctor who comes face to face with pure evil. Carradine is forced to take a stale role, one that completely takes away from his always-welcome presence. The effects here are just as solid as they were in the other films but near the end, it seems like some of the effects were getting sloppy. Overall, The Invisible Man’s Revenge is running on empty but director Ford Beebe still manages to send the character off on a dark and ominous note. Grade: B-
The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman, Invisible Agent, and The Invisible Man’s Revenge are all available on DVD.
by Corinne Rizzo
On the second day, there was The Invisible Man, and it was good.
A film inspired by and named after the H. G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man is an interesting addition to this week’s selection of Universal Movie Monsters. This film, overlooked and underrated by some enthusiasts is a fearless and masterful peek into the evolution of the movie monsters.
Released years before The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man is a film based on a scientist who had chosen himself as his own test subject, ultimately turning himself invisible and it is at that point that the viewer is introduced to this scientist as The Invisible Man. There is no waiting for his character to develop and his unraveling comes quick.
The film opens as a walking bandage, outfitted in a suit, hat and glasses, stumbles through the snow, uphill to a tavern where he hopes to seek refuge from the cold and the privacy to bring himself back to a visible state. The hat and glasses are what cause this character to look suspicious at first, especially to the patrons of the bar, then at second glance, the bandages, gloves, and wig all come together to help the viewer understand that as we meet The Invisible Man, the damage has already been done. The viewer has no choice but to take interest in his advanced state as it has been given freely. The viewer is granted permission to sit back and watch what an invisible man will do.
Stating that every month for a year The Invisible Man has injected himself with a serum designed precisely for that purpose, the audience becomes aware that this is no ordinary scientist, though he might have started that way. The Invisible Man’s character quickly jumps from one of embarrassment and desperation of becoming normal again to a crazed mad man, as if this serum is destroying his better judgment by the minute. One minute, our man is beating himself up about not being able to reverse his discovery and the next, he is raving about how menacing it is to be invisible and how he could never be caught.
And with that notion our Invisible Man becomes quite maniacal, but also so straight forward with his madness that it comes across as slightly humorous. Directly communicating to his lab partner upon returning back to his home town that he will kill him at a ten o’clock on the dot the next day, elaborating to include that he will be strangled and left for dead and that no one would ever be able to find his killer doesn’t sound funny, but one might be surprised by how a straight talking invisible cowboy of a man, could be so cynical and darkly humorous.
The film is filled with these no nonsense anecdotes and as The Invisible Man begins to feel more and more empowered by his discovery, he begins to act more irrationally.
The authorities in this film, as well as the mob of drunks looking to destroy The Invisible Man and his horrible ways have a hard time finding him, which also lends to a certain humor. Firstly, the police in the film are slow moving St. Bernard types who are easily bamboozled by The Invisible Man and that there always seems to be a gaggle of drunkards following them all just adds to a very Three Stooges like setting.
Taking advantage of a snowy day and the fact that The Invisible Man must be naked in order to evade his captors, the entire town which awkwardly hosted him in the beginning of the film eventually outnumbers The Invisible Man and brings him down, signaled only by a seizure of foot prints in the snow and a sudden human sized dent in the snow adjacent to the stalled prints.
What is interesting about the end of the film is that the viewer learns that the serum’s effectiveness dies as The Invisible Man becomes nearer and nearer to his own death. It is at that point that one might find themselves with the sudden realization that a whole hour and ten minutes has passed and in no way had they wondered what The Invisible Man actually looked like.
Like a gift from Universal Monster Movie heaven, the audience is granted permission to see the scientist as a visible and physical being, something a viewer might not have even considered given that the film is so darned entertaining in its own cynical and darkly humorous way.
This film, though released nearly a decade before The Wolf Man, is in many ways superior in building suspense and maintaining a certain tone of indecency that is truly horrific.
Top Five Reasons to see The Invisible Man:
1) A pair of pants goes trotting down a country road singing “Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May”.
2) You might just go the whole film without wondering what our man looks like.
3) The love affair in the film just doesn’t matter.
4) The bar maid is way more out of her mind than The Invisible Man is.
5) It’s just a way cool concept that trumps things like werewolves.
by Corinne Rizzo
Never being previously exposed to a Universal Monster Movie before, a viewer can find themselves overwhelmed by the extensive library of movie monsters available to them. There are, one will learn, your most popular among the classics, then the more underrated, then of course the overrated in every category of film though there isn’t much chatter among the masses of Universal Monster Movies anymore. There’s still time to exhume that excitement, and The Wolf Man circa 1941 is one of best ways a moviegoer can remind themselves of where suspense and horror began, where things first went bump in the night and how to never underestimate a timeless movie ever again.
Larry Talbot arrives home from nearly two decades in the United States for seemingly one reason—his brother had been killed in a hunting accident, but shortly after his arrival, Larry’s distant relationship with his father becomes prevalent and the viewer now understands that not only is Larry home to grieve, but replace his brother in his father’s heart. The formalities between Larry and his father make for cold interactions using such terms as “sir” and shaking hands instead of hugging or even a handshake/hug combo.
When Larry sees the opportunity to impress his father by swooping up the Conliffe girl tending the antique shop across the way, he does all he can to get her alone, which is where his fate turns.
Following the action of the film’s plot is easy enough and even an inattentive viewer would be able to spot the foreshadowing involved. The repetition of a fable and talks of Little Red Riding Hood signal to the viewer that soon enough, our guy will become a main player in his own werewolf legend. Along with leaving the viewer with no doubts of the foreshadowed events, The Wolf Man moves along quite slowly, which could leave any audience yawning or shuffling to the kitchen without pressing pause. The film goes on for a solid forty five minutes (Gosh, it really did feel like forever) without any real action. There is plenty of talk of werewolves, surprise third wheels showing up on dates and ruining everyone’s time, but no real werewolf action by our main guy.
When the audience finally does catch a glimpse of our man as wolf, it is lack luster at best, but also simple enough to catch this viewers attention. Not one for scary movies or any film that incites anxiety or fear, it was almost a relief to find the make-up and violence to be tame and understated. Plus, with all of that waiting around to see Larry as the werewolf, anything might have been a relief. It was then that then Universal Movie Monster franchise made sense and the appeal of The Wolf Man is not unlike the appeal of simple independent films some viewers find themselves seeking regularly.
There is something to be said for a classic film, which in its day was a hit, is now a muted outline for the gory atrocity of horror films today. Though the film ends just as the players begin to understand that Larry isn’t crazy and that he is in fact an unstoppable and blood thirsty werewolf (or in other words, just as it was getting good), the film still incorporates a steady incline of suspense with a swift and heavy climax involving father and son in a death match. The viewer is left feeling like there could have been more to the finish of the film, though with some soul searching, it is apparent that there is nothing left of the story, which makes it easy to abandon that feeling and just accept what was shown.
Arguing with a classic is useless anyway.
Top Five Reasons to see The Wolf Man (1941)
1) The entire film is supposed to be set in England but no one has a British accent.
2) The viewer begins to weigh the pros and cons of either being considered crazy or actually being a werewolf.
3) The audience is treated to a rare glimpse of what a werewolf were to look at had he a telescope.
4) The Wolf Man’s father is The Invisible Man, but don’t tell anyone.
5) It makes you feel so much more included in the horror scene without actually having to watch a scary movie.