That Old Haunted House: The Legend of Hell House (1973)
by Steve Habrat
If Robert Wise’s The Haunting is too tame for you, you’re in luck because there just happens to be a haunted house film that has plenty of gore and ghostly sex to please the edgier horror fan. That film happens to be John Hough’s 1973 film The Legend of Hell House, a film that is quite similar to The Haunting in the plot department but separates itself through the use of color and racy subject matter. While I personally do not find the film as creepy as Wise’s masterpiece, The Legend of Hell House has a suspenseful first act, one with slowly manifesting ectoplasm, supernatural intercourse, and tumbling chandeliers (those are the worst) but then collapses in its second act with corpses in hidden rooms and a seriously scrappy black cat (those are pretty bad too). Based on the novel by Richard Matheson, the man who brought us the classic vampire tale I Am Legend, The Legend of Hell House is never as understated and as slow building as The Haunting and it comes up short because of it. It can’t wait to show off a few special effects and throw a few of the snippy actors and actresses through the air. At least the film packs a hell of a séance sequence doused in vibrant red lighting and stunning exterior shots that conceal the house behind rolling walls of fog. It’s scenes like this that inject quite a bit of atmosphere and allow the film to receive higher marks.
The Legend of Hell House introduces us to physicist Lionel Barrett (Played by Clive Revill), who is sent to the legendary Belasco House, the “Mount Everest of haunted houses” to research the paranormal activity that is said to go on in the house. The Belasco House was originally owned by Emeric Belasco (Played by Michael Gough), a sadistic millionaire giant who enjoyed toying with the occult and may have even murdered people within the walls of the home. It is said that Emeric mysteriously disappeared after a brutal massacre at the lavish compound and was never heard from again. Barrett sets out for the home with his wife, Ann (Played by Gayle Hunnicutt), medium Florence Tanner (Played by Pamela Franklin), and Ben Fischer (Played by Roddy McDowall), another jumpy medium who has investigated the Belasco House before with another paranormal research team and was the only survivor of the previous investigation. As they explore the house, Lionel reveals to the team that he has created a machine that is able to rid the house of any nasty paranormal activity. Things become complicated when Florence becomes convinced that Emeric Belasco is not the one haunting the house but is actually his son, Daniel. As the group attempts to communicate with Daniel, madness begins to plague the group, possession is a daily occurrence, and repulsive horrors turn up behind doors that have been sealed many years.
Embracing more the macabre freedom that was surging through the veins of the horror film, The Legend of Hell House doesn’t settle on just telling us about the morbid back-story of the Belasco House. It dares to show us a little bit of the sleaze that took place and even enjoys some bloodletting from time to time. We hear about vampirism, orgies, alcoholism, mutilation, necrophilia, and cannibalism, just to name a few. Sounds like a kicking party, right? This is a film with plenty of sexuality boiling to the surface as characters plead with other characters for sex while even the shadowy spirits are getting busy. Most of it is unintentionally hilarious, especially when one character offers herself up sexually to a ghost (I dare you to watch that scene with a straight face). Despite some of the silliness, the film never seems to loose its grip on the gothic mood that creeps about it. The outside of the house is downright terrifying and certainly a home I would never dream of going in. The cherry on top is the black cat that waits in the fog outside, the ultimate Halloween touch. The interior of the home is crammed with shadows and hidden rooms that spit out decaying corpses and discolored skeletons. It’s all earth tones, which give the whole place a rotten feel, appropriate for what took place inside.
The Legend of Hell House does feature some pretty good performances, especially from Roddy McDowall as the spooked medium who refuses to help out. Only there for the large some of cash he was promised, McDowall’s Fischer is an irritating and prickly geek with oversized glasses who has to man up in the final moments of the film. I would never expect his character to suddenly become as brave as he does but that is part of the fun of his character. Revill plays Lionel much like every other head of a paranormal research team. He is deadly serious and always just a tad bit dry as he drones on about scientific theories. His wife Ann, however, suffers from a severe case of ennui and sexual repression, something the spirits of the Belasco House prey upon instantly. Wait for the scene where she tries to seduce Fischer. Rounding out the main players is Franklin as Florence, who seems vaguely similar to The Haunting’s Eleanor but also drastically different. She appears to be connected to the house and also a bit reluctant to leave. She is really put through the ringer as a nasty demonic kitty claws at her bare skin and a ghostly presence wishes to get busy with her. Franklin does get the film’s creepiest moment, a séance sequence that is lit entirely by harsh red lights. And keep a look out for Michael Gough as a very still Emeric Belasco.
While there are plenty of flashy moments strewn about The Legend of Hell House, it does take a page out of The Haunting’s playbook and does spend a good chunk of time allowing its character to really develop. They argue and fight much like they did in The Haunting but they are never allowed the depth that Wise’s characters were. There is no question that Edgar Wright’s fake trailer Don’t, which appeared in 2007’s Grindhouse, was inspired by the film. All it will take is a quick glimpse of the outside of the Belasco House and you will see what I am talking about. The second half of The Legend of Hell House is what really derails the film. The last act twist is sort of silly and doesn’t shock us nearly as much as it wants to. Despite how cheesy it may get, you can’t take your eyes of McDowall and his suddenly tough medium who was such a pain in the ass before. Overall, The Legend of Hell House is a fun little erotic spin on The Haunting and visually it is something to behold. The heavier use of special effects have caused the film to age poorly but as a lesser-known horror film of the 1970s, it actually manages to be a fun little ghost party. There is no doubt that you can do better but for those on the search for something they haven’t seen before on Halloween night, The Legend of Hell House may be just what the goth doctor ordered.
The Legend of Hell House is available on DVD.
Hammer Horror Series: Horror of Dracula (1958)
by Steve Habrat
Shortly after unleashing their bloody interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hammer Studios decided to tackle Frankenstein’s partner in crime—Dracula. While The Curse of Frankenstein is considered the film that introduced Hammer Studios to the world, Horror of Dracula is considered one of their finest films in their vault. Once again starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Horror of Dracula is a sexed up vision of the vampire, complete with plenty of cleavage to satisfy the male viewers. While adding a heavy layer of sexuality and allowing plenty of blood to flow in striking Technicolor, director Terence Fisher has been credited for laying the groundwork for the modern vampire film. It features a suave Lee as Dracula preying upon voluptuous women who all shriek in orgasmic terror as the legendary bloodsucker drains them of blood. There is plenty of seduction in Horror of Dracula, something that was only vaguely hinted upon in the Tod Browning’s Universal classic Dracula. Much like The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula is very low budget, taking place primarily on two or three sets, which may have been left over from their previous offering, but there is plenty of misty atmosphere that would make Universal jealous. And then there is Lee as Dracula, who some argue gives the definitive performance as the iconic vampire.
Horror of Dracula begins with Jonathan Harker (Played by John Van Eyssen) arriving at Count Dracula’s (Played by Christopher Lee) castle, posing as a librarian. As he is taken into the gothic walls, a beautiful woman who is begging for help approaches Jonathan but is scared off by Dracula as he welcomes his guest. Dracula takes Jonathan to his room where it is revealed that Jonathan isn’t a librarian at all, but there to put an end to Dracula’s reign of terror. The next day, Jonathan is attacked by the same woman and bitten on the neck. Just as the woman is about to kill Jonathan, Dracula interrupts the attack and fights the girl off. Jonathan passes out from the attack and awakens the next day with strange marks on his neck. He slips down to the dungeon where he discovers Dracula and the woman in their coffins. Jonathan quickly dispatches the woman but Dracula wakes up and kills him. Shortly after the confrontation, Professor Van Helsing (Played by Peter Cushing) arrives at the castle looking for Jonathan and as he searches, he finds both the body of Jonathan and his diary. Van Helsing then sets out to deliver news of Jonathan’s death to his fiancé, Lucy (Played by Carol Marsh) and her brother, Arthur (Played by Michael Gough). But just as Van Helsing arrives to deliver the news, Dracula begins tormenting Lucy and Arthur.
Fisher’s Horror of Dracula doesn’t hesitate to jump right in to the action. There is no extended sequence of Jonathan traveling to Dracula’s gothic castle or whispers from the terrified villagers about the undead claiming the night. Right from the beginning, we learn that this Dracula is nastier and bloodier than anything we have seen before. Lee’s Dracula can be a gentleman one minute and the next; he is a red-eyed beast looking to tear the throat out of anyone who dares cross him. The first glimpse we get of the snarling Dracula certainly does shake the viewer up and it could very well be the most frightening scene of the entire film. The second half of the film finds Dracula largely absent from all the action and the main characters debating how to keep Dracula away from Lucy and Arthur’s wife, Mina (Played by Melissa Stribling). Many may deem this boring, especially since the middle section finds the characters pacing ornate dens while discussing vampire lore rather than tending to spurting arties. But it is these scenes that build the anticipation for Dracula’s return and in a way, make us fear him all the more. He could be anywhere, at any time, and we have no idea when he will choose to strike next.
Then there is the fantastic Cushing as Van Helsing, a mere mortal who resorts to tricks to fight the relentless vampire. It is difficult not to admire the way Cushing approaches each terrifying situation he encounters, as he is always cool, calm, and collected. Cushing has great chemistry with Gough, who is probably best remembered for his work as Alfred in Tim Burton’s 1989 gothic superhero film Batman. Cushing and Gough team up for a final showdown with Dracula that I promise will satisfy in every way imaginable. It is morbid and action packed but forced to remain restrained due to Hammer’s limited budget. We also can’t forget about the ladies, who also get their chance to really spook us throughout the course of the film. Marsh is the standout as Lucy, who nabs another one of the film’s more effective spooks. As a young girl wanders the woods, she is coaxed further in by the terrifying apparition of Lucy, who reveals a full set of razor sharp fangs to the young girl. It is another one of those scenes that catapult Horror of Dracula to the top of the list of horror movies perfect for Halloween night. Stribling gets a hair-raising encounter with the king vampire as he enters her bedroom and slowly makes his way in for the bite.
While Horror of Dracula may have plenty of terrifying moments to go around, the film has some surprising moments of humor, which does alleviate some of the tension. Yet when Fischer wants to scare the living hell out of you, he does it with a vengeance. Behold the scene where Gough and Cushing wander a misty tomb and come face to face with the undead Lucy. The final showdown in Dracula’s castle is also pretty gripping as a rattled Van Helsing starts to loose control against the demonic force he is facing. The film ends with some rickety special effects that have not aged well but are still appropriately disturbing. Incredibly influential and scary, Horror of Dracula is certainly one of the finest examples of vampires at their most sinister. The film deserves to stand alongside classics like 1922 silent German Expressionist nightmare Nosferatu, the legendary 1931 Universal/Lugosi offering, and Werner Herzog’s surreal 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre. Overall, Horror of Dracula is a small but scrappy homerun for Hammer Studios. You may find yourself hanging garlic on your door and sleeping with a stake and crucifix next to your bed. Make it a double feature with The Curse of Frankenstein.
Horror of Dracula is available on DVD.
Batman & Robin (1997)
by Steve Habrat
If Batfans were worried about what direction the Batman films were going in after 1995’s half-campy Batman Forever, our worst fears were confirmed with Joel Schumacher’s 1997 atrocity Batman & Robin. For this Batfan, I remained in denial about the movie for several weeks after I saw it, refusing to admit that it was downright awful. As the days passed, I began to face the truth and accept that Batman had been turned into a two-hour toy commercial that had little respect for the character I had grown up with. Schumacher had done what absolutely no one wanted to see and that was return to the silliness of the 1960s. Even more family friendly than Batman Forever, Batman & Robin was relentlessly juvenile, with Looney Tunes sound effects, the dynamic duo playing hockey with the “hockey team from Hell”, and Mr. Freeze delivering some seriously appalling one-liners that made any proud Batfan want to smash their head into a wall then curl up and die. Oh, and they totally ruined Bane! As a result of Batman & Robin, I actually gave up Batman and quit collecting the comics and toys for years after. I was so embarrassed by it and even today when I revisit the film, it is a real chore to get through. For two hours, Warner Bros. and Schumacher crush your spirits and spit in your face with lines like “You’re not gonna send me to the coolah!”
Batman & Robin begins with Commissioner Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle) summoning Batman (Played by George Clooney) and Robin (Played by Chris O’Donnell) to Gotham City to stop the sinister Mr. Freeze (Played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) from stealing a cache of diamonds. Mr. Freeze narrowly escapes the masked vigilantes and returns to his hideout where he is trying to save the life of his beloved wife who is suffering from MacGregor’s Syndrome. Meanwhile, in South America, botanist Dr. Pamela Isely (Played by Uma Thurman) is working under the mad Dr. Jason Woodrue (Played by John Glover) who is experimenting with a serum called “Venom”, which transforms runts into super soldiers. He experiments on a scrawny criminal and in the process, turns him into the hulking killing machine Bane (Played by Jeep Swenson). Dr. Isely witness the experiment and when she refuses to join Dr. Woodrue, he brutally murders her with an assortment of different toxins that she was working on. Isely is reborn as the sexy seductress Poison Ivy, who joins forces with Bane and heads to Gotham City to confront Bruce Wayne about cutting the funding of her project in South America. Once she arrives, she bumps into Mr. Freeze and together, they form an alliance that will have Batman and Robin scrambling to find all the help they can get.
In interviews about the film, Schumacher explains that Warner Bros. really pressured him to keep things light for the children, even more than they did on Batman Forever. They also ushered in toy companies to have a strong input in the design of gadgets and vehicles and it is completely obvious. It was an attempt to make things more “toyetic”. There are countless gadgets strewn throughout the film, most of them serving no purpose at all. Then there is the Batmobile, which looks like a supped-up sports car that will be used for street racing rather than battling crime. I’m stunned that Schumacher didn’t throw text on the screen that read “For sale at your local Wal-Mart!” just so everyone knew it was available. The film has a paper thin plotline that barely makes any sense at all, the whole grand scheme here is that Mr. Freeze wants to freeze the city. The annoying aesthetic that Schumacher applied in Batman Forever is also punched up to one hundred as the film constantly looks like it was filmed in various glow-in-the-dark nightclubs as techno pumps into the fight scenes. While all of this is bad, nothing can compare to the performances that Schumacher captures.
Stepping in for Val Kilmer is the hunky George Clooney, who is so uncomfortable in the role that he is practically looking into the camera and saying it to us. His Bruce Wayne is a grinning and sunny philanthropist who refuses to brood or be at odds with his duty of protecting Gotham City. He is more of a wisecracking dad to Chris O’Donnell’s Robin, who belts out cringe inducing dialogue at every turn. A scene where Batman and Robin glide through the sky on makeshift surfboards has Robin yelling “Cowabunga!” as he surfs over the rooftops of Gotham. There is a disposable side plot that finds Robin growing tired with all of Batman’s rules, which consistently keep him alive and he doesn’t even realize it. He whines and moans that Bruce doesn’t trust him but it never leads to anything substantial. Schumacher also can’t resist lacing the moments between Bruce and Dick with a homoerotic feel that once again is completely out of place. Things really get weird when they begin bickering over Poison Ivy, who introduces herself at a charity ball that has the dynamic duo arguing over who will take her home. The scene culminates in Batman whipping out an American Express card and warning Robin to “never leave the Batcave without it”. I don’t know about you, but I would think it would be odd that Bruce Wayne wouldn’t be at his own charity ball but Batman is there bidding millions of dollars to take Ivy home. Maybe it is just me, but I think doing something like that would give yourself away instantly.
Then we have the villains, who once again steal most of the movie away from the title characters. Schwarzenegger is a lumbering chunk of blue cheese as he delivers some of the films worst lines of dialogue. Every line written for the man is a one liner that references freezing something. He crashes a party and shouts “Everyone chill!” as the guests shriek in terror. Then there is the femme fatale Poison Ivy, who is equally cheeky when she delivers lines like “Curses!” as she is foiled by Batgirl. She spends a good majority of the movie trying to seduce men and kiss them, which is the only thing deadly about her. Then we have Swenson’s Bane, a mindless brute with greenish skin that grunts, groans, and moans as Freeze and Ivy give him commands. For a villain that was extremely deadly in the comic books, it is such a disappointment when Robin and Batgirl swoop in and defeat this hulk. Alicia Silverstone shows up as Barbara Wilson, Alfred’s niece who likes to play sweet and innocent but has a knack for getting in with the wrong people. She ultimately becomes Batgirl but there is no build up to this. She just suddenly becomes part of the team and Batman never once questions her sudden appearance. Michael Gough reprises his role as Alfred and even he seems to be phoning it in here. He gets a side story that reveals his character is hiding an illness that may take his life. This is the most interesting part of Batman & Robin but it certainly doesn’t better the movie. Also returning is Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon who is present only to grab a few laughs and then disappear.
By the time Mr. Freeze has converted a giant telescope into a freeze machine that will blanket Gotham City in a thick layer of ice, you will have completely checked out of Batman & Robin. Poison Ivy basically serves no purpose in the movie other than to drag the film out a little bit. Batman and Robin are unable to beat her even though she is powerless yet Batgirl swings in with one kick and Ivy is no more. Our heroes also have time to do a quick wardrobe change in the final act of the film, emerging onto the slick streets of ice town wearing futuristic armor that looks ridiculous. It doesn’t aid the trio in battling Mr. Freeze and seems like it is only here to look cool. And DON’T get me started on the nipples that are once again present on the Batsuit! Overall, it is hard to believe that Batman & Robin is operating in the same universe that Tim Burton created in 1989. An obnoxious mess of a film that is completely unwatchable from the get-go, Batman & Robin is not only the worst Batman film ever made, but is also one of the worst superhero films to ever grace the silver screen. A complete embarrassment on every single level, both for fans and the filmmakers.
Batman & Robin is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Batman Forever (1995)
by Steve Habrat
After Tim Burton took Batman to the darkest depths of evil’s soul in 1992’s Batman Returns, Warner Bros. wanted to make the Batman franchise friendlier to families all over America (No death to children here!). With Burton out of the director’s chair and wearing the producer’s hat, Joel Schumacher steps in to brighten the mood, yanking the brooding Batman out of the shadows and tossing him head first into a world of neon lights and rubber nipples on the Batsuit. Schumacher’s Batman Forever, the third installment in the franchise, was without question the grandest Batman film to date. It sprints all over this art deco Gotham City that looks more like a nightclub than an actual metropolis. Some of the dark tones of the original two films remain loosely in tact and newcomer Val Kilmer, who steps in for Michael Keaton, refuses to quit brooding as Bruce Wayne, but the film welcomes in two campy villains, an annoying sidekick, and a homoerotic feel that turns Batman and his antagonists into glam rock drag queens with no purpose or direction. Completely reversing the plot to create a darker Batman, Schumacher takes things back to the campy 60’s television series that starred Adam West as a much more cartoonish version of the Dark Knight and in the process, he horrifies Batfans everywhere.
Batman Forever begins with the dreaded Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Played by Tommy Lee Jones), the former do-gooder D.A. of Gotham City, terrorizing the good citizens of the sprawling city. He blames Batman (Played by Val Kilmer) for not intervening in a courtroom accident that left half of his face horribly scarred. Two-Face soon finds an ally in the rubbery terrorist Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Played by Jim Carrey), a disgruntled former employee of Wayne Enterprises who is out to stick it to his idol, Bruce Wayne. The Riddler devises a way to suck the secrets out of the heads of the helpless citizens of Gotham, which allows him to get inside Batman’s mind and figure out his true identity. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne has assumed responsibility for the young Dick Grayson (Played by Chris O’Donnell), who watched helplessly as his parents were murdered by the bloodthirsty Two-Face. As Dick spends more and more time in Wayne Manor, he begins to suspect that Wayne is hiding something and he is determined to find out what that secret is. As The Riddler and Two-Face close in on the city, Bruce Wayne begins to grapple with his true identity, leading him to consider hanging up the cape for good.
In the past, I have criticized Burton’s Batman films for not exploring the psychology of Bruce Wayne and what drives him to dress up like a giant bat. Schumacher’s Batman Forever attempts to wrap its head around why Bruce does this and while I admire the effort, it is shoddy and half-hearted. Bruce is urged by love interest Dr. Chase Meridian (Played by Nicole Kidman) to face down his demons, which leads to a handful of moody flashbacks that are ripe with the darkness of the first two films. Unfortunately, a good majority of this side plot was removed from Batman Forever due to the studio’s fear of venturing back into the dark side of Batman. This is just one of the missed opportunities in Batman Forever. There are tons of moments that appear to be going in the right direction but are thrown off by studio interference. Many are quick to place ALL the blame on Schumacher, labeling him the only person responsible for Batman crumbling to glittery ash, but I think Warner Bros. also played a part in this monstrosity. I was always hesitant to put all of the blame on him because you will catch glimpses of the film that Schumacher wanted to make. There are some bleak touches to be found if you are willing to look closely, something that saves Batman Forever from being a total turd.
Another positive that Batman Forever has working in its favor is the casting of Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Kilmer continues to play Wayne with a straight face, refusing to stop and wink at the audience even when Schumacher slaps nipples on his armor. When he puts on the Batsuit, Kilmer communicates in a whisper that does seem perfect for a guy dressing up like a giant bat, which softens the blow of campy lines of dialogue like, “I’ll get drive-thru.” Things really hit rock bottom for Kilmer when he is forced to team up with O’Donnell’s Robin, who does nothing to lift the creeping veil of camp that is slowly draping over the film. Schumacher also hints at a homosexual spark between the two crime fighters, which would be okay if the previous two films had hinted that Bruce grapples with his sexuality but that isn’t the case here. Kilmer is forced to morph the brooding hero, who has had feelings for Vicki Vale and Selina Kyle in the past, into a bisexual with an identity crisis. It’s a bizarre touch to throw into the series in the third quarter but Kilmer keeps a cool head with the murky twist.
To make things worse for Batman Forever, O’Donnell has no clue how to approach the Boy Wonder. At times, he wants to be just as brooding and dark as Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne and at others, he wants to be a party-boy rebel without a real cause. I had mixed feelings about his character but he really rubbed me the wrong way when he jacked the Batmobile and takes it out for a joyride. Personally, I could have done without the inclusion of Robin, as I personally have never been a huge fan of the character. Then we have the two villains, both who lift the buffoonery of Nicholson’s Joker but forget the measured menace that made his character so unforgettable. When Carrey isn’t on the screen with him, Jones actually knows how to handle his split-personality wacko but whenever the question-mark-clad Carrey enters the scene, the two seem like they are in a contest to see who can out-camp the other. Carrey wins the contest and turns the Riddler into a heavily caffeinated version of the Joker who loves one-liners and loves light-up jackets. Jones and Carrey do an admirable job with the material they are given, but I wish they weren’t asked to act like they are two giddy teenagers. Matching Kilmer’s somber tone is Nicole Kidman’s sexy psychologist (a fitting love interest for this film), who is here to coax the demons out of Wayne. Also back is Michael Gough as the faithful butler Alfred, who contributes another quality performance, and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, who once again has absolutely nothing to do with his iconic character.
As I stated earlier, Batman Forever was the biggest Batman film at the time and Schumacher loads it with enough action to live up to that reputation. The film does have some marvelous sets even if they do turn Batman Forever into a gigantic neon dance club. The fight scenes lack the brutality of Batman and Batman Returns, at times seeming like the characters are dance fighting (It wouldn’t surprise me if they were) rather than actually fighting for their lives. Schumacher and his crew hope to overwhelm us with action and eye candy so that we won’t notice the fact that the film basically has no plot and they almost succeed. Luckily, Kilmer is a nice fit for Batman and it is a shame he didn’t stick around to elaborate on his performance, but I can’t say I blame him for abandoning the character when the studio is more interested in selling toys rather than making something coherent. Overall, Batman Forever is a regressive film that appeals more to kids than it does to the adult viewers looking for something substantial and weighty. Oh well, at least there wasn’t any “Wham” or “Pow” to speak of, which was a relief for a film that hits the ground with a campy joke about Batman stopping for drive-thru.
Batman Forever is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Batman Returns (1992)
by Steve Habrat
While I credit Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman for shaping me into the hardcore fan of the Caped Crusader that I am, my favorite Burton Batman film is without question the bizarre 1992 sequel Batman Returns. Darker, uglier, and meaner than the 89’ original, Batman Returns is a macabre circus of freaks that goes right for the jugular in more ways than one. Burton punches up the violence, the gore, and the sexual innuendos that would make overly sensitive young children cower in fear and nurse scars for life. Burton still makes the grave mistake of putting more emphasis on the formation of the foes rather than Bruce Wayne/Batman’s demons that plague him but Keaton does still get the chance to elaborate on the classic character, giving him more depth here than in Batman. Criticized by many critics and fans for putting more thought into the gothic world of Gotham City than the storyline, Batman Returns does have an even more flamboyant style than the original film but with this style, Burton piles on a sense of dread that practically snaps the film in two. With Batman Returns, Burton goes full goth on the viewer and I love it.
Batman Returns flashes back thirty-three years and ushers us in to a the lavish home of the Cobblepots, a wealthy couple who has given birth to a deformed child that they quickly smuggle out into the snowy evening and dump into the Gotham City sewers. The film jumps to present day with the deformed Penguin (Played by Danny DeVito) readying his plot to reveal himself to the world. It is the Christmas season and hundreds of Gotham’s citizens have gathered in Gotham Square for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony held by the Mayor (Played by Michael Murphy) and crooked businessman Max Shreck (Played by Christopher Walken). The Penguin unleashes his merry gang of freaks onto the city as a diversion so he can kidnap Shreck and blackmail him into helping him re-emerge into the world. Shreck, meanwhile, takes out his frustration with the incident on his timid secretary Selina Kyle (Played by Michelle Pfeiffer) by threatening her and then shoving her out of a window in disgust. She survives the fall and in the wake of the accident, she takes to the streets as a mysterious leather-clad vigilante who enjoys helping women in trouble while also leaving a trail of destruction across Gotham. As the violence escalates, Commissioner Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle) is forced to call upon the mysterious Batman (Played by Michael Keaton) to protect the city.
You’d never guess that Burton was hesitant to return to the world of Gotham City because Batman Returns comes at the viewer like, well, a bat out of Hell. The film begins with the disturbing images of a horrified couple dumping a baby into frigid waters and then quickly shifts over to the Penguin unleashing the Red Triangle Circus Gang on the city to commit mass murder. He cuts the scene up with the Batsignal shooting up into the sky while Bruce Wayne sits sulking in his darkened study, alone and away from the world yet completely comfortable in this isolated world of darkness. He notices the signal in the sky and he dutifully stands up to ready himself for battle. This is one of my favorite scenes in any of the Batman films that have made it to the big screen. Now you understand why I prefer this film to the original blockbuster. Burton isn’t playing it safe anymore and he keeps the gloom up for slightly over two hours. We get to spend quite a bit more time with the man behind the cowl and Keaton continues to fascinate us. He has apparently learned to let love in, yet this time, the destruction is deadlier and he fidgets if he has to make a dash to the Batcave. Keaton sizzles when he plays off of Pfeiffer, who is both his love interest and his villain here. When the two are all dressed up and prowling the rooftops, get ready to have your world rocked. Their showdowns are explosive.
Batman Returns gives us a brief look at the tragedy that has given birth to the Penguin but it takes its good old time to really give us Catwoman, a sultry menace who aligns herself with both Batman and the Penguin. Her shift from timid to seductive is compelling and is a testament to Pfeiffer, who single handedly creates one of the best villains in this series of Batman films. In many ways, she overshadows most of the other villains because you never quite known if she is going to be playing friend or foe. Her origin, though slight cheesy, is one that will have the feminists cheering as she ditches the “His Girl Friday” routine and becomes a snarling liberator who warns the women she saves that they shouldn’t count on the BatMAN to save them anymore. After slicing up a mugger’s face, she whispers to the victim, “I am Catwoman. Hear me roar!” When she is paired up the slobbering sicko Penguin, a perverted freak of nature, it becomes a gothic Beauty and the Beast. DeVito is absolutely perfect as the sad sack Oswald Cobblepot, one who is eager to drain the citizens of their empathy and cackles behind closed doors at people’s gullibility. When he finally reveals his master plan, many may be covering their mouths in horror. Oh yes, Burton plans to go there and when one of Penguin’s gang members speaks up and tells Penguin that his plan may be a little too dark, he quickly reaches for his shotgun and blows the softie away. When I saw this in the theater, my jaw was on the floor.
Burton scales back some of his action in Batman Returns, making things a bit more claustrophobic but still thrilling nonetheless. There are lots of brawls in the snow-covered streets of Gotham between the vicious Red Triangle Circus Gang and Batman that are a lot of fun. The opening riot is appropriately shocking, especially when you see the whacked out appearance of the gang members. There is a fire-eater here, a pair of maniacs on stilts, and tons of freaks on motorcycles that don some horrifying skull masks. Near the end of the film, things take a turn into silliness with the Penguin unleashing hundreds of armed penguins on Gotham. It takes things into campy territory, which is a bit perplexing considering how dark the film was up until this big reveal. Burton regroups with a gruesome four way stand-off between a maskless Batman, a battered Catwoman, a dying Penguin, and a desperate Shreck, who seems slightly out of place in this trio of freaks. Much like the 89’ original, the effects have held up marvelously. Wait until you get a load of the scene where Batman glides over the chaos riddled streets of Gotham City, blending in with a swarm of bats that are filling the streets.
Batman Returns is certainly not a film for children and it erases some of the goofier elements that bothered me in Batman. Luckily, there is no villain dancing around the tunes of Prince, which was a giant relief. The plotline does get a bit weak in points, with the style masking the fact that the story is flying off the rails. Burton botches it at the end with the army of penguins and a funeral procession with six gigantic penguins, but I am willing to forgive due to how great the other 95% of this film is. Once again, Burton wastes the character of Commissioner Gordon, with the beloved ally only making a few minor appearances in all the action. Michael Gough shows up again as Alfred, the kind butler who realizes that he may have to aid Bruce in his battle against two foes looking to level Gotham. Walken is also a lot of fun as Shreck but he sort of clogs up the story at times. Overall, if Burton were hesitant to make this film, you’d never know it because it seems enthusiastically made. It also seems like he got a bit more freedom from the studio to really get weird. Once again, there are some minor tweaks to the stories, which will no doubt drive the fanboys like me nuts but I love this film because it dares to venture deeper into the darkness of the comic books. For that, Batman Returns remains my favorite Batman film from Burton.
Batman Returns is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
One of the most important films from my childhood is without question Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, the first big screen adaptation of the Caped Crusader that dared to remain buried in the shadows. With Batman, Burton proved to Hollywood that audiences would eat up a deliciously dark and violent superhero movie and they wouldn’t even bat an eyebrow. Burton’s Batman, along with the campy Adam West television series, is what shaped me into the diehard Bat-fan (and collector) that I am today. Yet Burton’s original film had two aspects that I have never been able to really get over and one is the fact that the story is told mostly from the Joker’s point of view. Bruce Wayne/Batman is almost a secondary character to Jack Nicholson’s cackling madman. To make things even more infuriating for this Bat-fan, Burton reshaped Batman’s origin by having the Joker be the one who gunned down Batman’s parents in that dark and damp alley. Despite these flaws that are a BIG no-no to me, Batman is still an awesomely gothic vision of the DC Comics vigilante created by Bob Kane (who gets an awesome cameo here). I firmly believe that Burton was put on this earth to convert Kane’s winged vigilante into movie material and replace the campy tone of the 60’s television series with a freakishly haunting mood that you won’t soon forget.
Batman begins on the dangerous streets of Gotham City, a gothic metropolis that is plagued with decay and filth. Despite efforts from the newly elected district attorney Harvey Dent (Played by Billy Dee Williams) and police commissioner Jim Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle), the city is still controlled by mob boss Carl Grissom (Played by Jack Palance), who rules the streets at night. The real terror is Grissom’s right hand man Jack Napier (Played by Jack Nicholson), who gets a kick out of murder and carries on a hushed affair with Grissom’s gorgeous galpal. Gotham City is also rampant with rumors about a masked vigilante who prowls the rooftops, seeking out the criminals who terrorize the innocent citizens. This vigilante happens to be billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Played by Michael Keaton), who vowed to wage a war on crime the night his parents were murdered in cold blood. One evening, Napier is sent by Grissom to raid the chemical company Axis Chemicals, but once he arrives, he realizes that Grissom has set him up to be taken down by Gotham City police. As the standoff intensifies, the masked vigilante known as Batman reveals himself to both the mobsters and the police. In the midst of the chaos, Batman, who is trying to detain Napier peacefully, accidentally drops him into a vat of chemicals that horribly disfigures him, turning him in to the giggling Clown Prince of Crime known as the Joker.
There is no question that Batman belongs to Nicholson’s roaring manic, which is a blessing and a curse. He rips through the movie delivering line after line of iconic dialogue that you will be quoting for days with your buddies. Burton eases Nicholson onto the path of a deadly buffoon who gets a kick out of practical jokes and jabs aimed at the Caped Crusader. The downside of all of this is that his sinister nature is saturated with scenes where he parades around with his goons listening to Prince. They shimmy and shake through the most bizarre art museum you have ever seen, defacing classic pieces with spray paint while belting out “Party Man” at the top of their lungs. This was the type of stuff that really bothered me about Batman. It feels like Burton was pressured into lightening the mood just a little bit so the studio could grab a younger audience. He repeats this at the end with a parade sequence that, once again, is blaring Prince at us (If you weren’t aware, Prince contributed a number of songs to the soundtrack). It’s another party anthem that is meant to get you rocking and drown out the idea that the Joker is about to commit mass murder. Luckily, Burton doesn’t let it completely overtake the scene and we do get the ultimate taste of how evil the Joker truly is.
The emphasis on Nicholson overshadows Keaton’s magnificent performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Keaton gives a grade-A performance as Bruce Wayne and in my eyes, he is still the second best movie Batman. He really isn’t given very much time in the spotlight but what little he gets is perfectly brooding. The scenes he gets with Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale, a photographer eager to nab a photo of the crime fighter, are delicately structured and distantly aching. Bruce so desperately longs for a normal existence but his work overshadows his love life. He brushes over the longing with a dismissive attitude, the cold face of a billionaire playboy who can have any woman he wants. Basinger is a lovesick puppy who wants into Bruce’s heart, but as she discovers more and more about the man and the demons he conceals, the more she views her task as hopeless. He is too removed and distant to ever allow someone to get close. Keaton’s best scenes, however, come when he confides in his trusted butler Alfred (Played by Michael Gough), who is the acting father figure in his life. Gough is, was, and ever shall be the best Alfred ever put on film, at least to me. He is so affectionate and strong with Bruce, acting as both the push Bruce needs to continue on as Batman as well as the stern voice of reason that he searches for.
There is plenty of action to thrill over in Burton’s Batman, all leading to an epic fistfight between the Joker and Batman at the very top of a dilapidated cathedral (Would you expect anything less from Burton?). The opening moments of the film still give me goosebumps, the Batman emerging from the shadows to clobber a duo of thugs who swap rumors they have heard about this winged demon with a taste for blood. The eerie confrontation ends with the thug squealing, “Who are you”, with Batman tugging him a little closer and whispering the iconic answer, “I’m Batman.” Burton is only wetting our appetite with the scene and he carefully places a number of money shot moments throughout his film that will drive any Batman fan wild with delight. The “I’m melting!” scene is a personal favorite of this Batman fan and I still can’t help but smile over how the scene plays out. It is wildly demented with Batman swooping in at just the right moment. All these teases really amp up with a street showdown between the Joker and Batman that hasn’t aged a day. I am still filled with awe during the Batwing battle that leaves the Joker stammering, “Why didn’t anyone tell me he had one of those…. THINGS!” The effects are timeless and the fights are bare-knuckle bloody, which is exactly how they should be. Bravo, Burton!
Throughout this review, I have put my inner fanboy on hold and left a few of my gripes with the movie on the backburner. While I think the image of the Batwing covering the moon is neat, I think it is a bit ridiculous. There are hundreds of people dying below and I hardly doubt Batman would stop to cover the moon up with the Batwing. I also seethe over how Burton wastes the characters of Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent. I always loved the relationship between Batman and Gordon and I get none of that here. He is such a spectacular ally for the Dark Knight and sadly, Burton gives him absolutely nothing to do. I still get worked up over the fact that Batman can’t turn his neck, something I have always loathed in these early Batman movies. How is he supposed to fight crime if he can’t even look left or right? Still, Batman has plenty of style and atmosphere, which fits well in this interpretation of the character. Burton’s Gotham City is filled with menace and can really be an intimidating place when the sun goes down. The galloping score from Danny Elfman, who conjures up an iconic theme to for our triumphant hero, compliments all of this gothic tension Burton musters. Grand, exciting, and featuring some of the best performances in a comic book movie, Batman is a flawed but undeniably fun classic that never gets old. A total crowd pleaser for both the diehard Batman fans like myself and the average movie-going public.
Batman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
by Steve Habrat
After the magic that was captured in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands and 1994’s Ed Wood, the bar was set mighty high for the third collaboration between auteur Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp. This third collaboration happened to be a big screen interpretation of Sleepy Hollow, a bulked up and bloodied version of Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that was first published in 1820. Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is a foggy, gothic vision that has faint echoes of a classic Universal Studios monster movie and a squeamish version of Ichabod Crane slinking away from the dreaded Headless Horseman. Working with a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, Burton’s Sleepy Hollow becomes a slightly convoluted but beautifully photographed thriller that lacks any substantial freak-outs. Sleepy Hollow ends up being rescued by Depp’s portrayal of Ichabod Crane, who in Burton’s film is a nebbish but practical New York City police constable rather than a skittish and superstitious schoolmaster like he was in Irving’s story. Depp adds some real pizzazz to a film that is all visual panache and very little humanity.
Sleepy Hollow finds queasy New York City police constable Ichabod Crane (Played by Johnny Depp) sent by his superiors to investigate a handful of gruesome murders in the isolated and superstitious town of Sleepy Hollow. Upon his arrival, Crane meets with a slew of locals who are taken aback by his new and experimental techniques that he plans to apply to catching what he assumes is a flesh and blood murderer. The nervous townspeople whisper tales of a headless apparition rising from the grave and riding through the night to severe the heads of anyone who gets in his path. As the investigation continues, Crane begins to realize that maybe the ghost stories that are on everyone’s lips may not be just stories afterall. Crane teams up with a local orphan Young Masbath (Played by Marc Pickering) and the pretty Katrina Van Tassel (Played by Christina Ricci), daughter of wealthy local farmer and head of Sleepy Hollow Baltus Van Tassel (Played by Michael Gambon). The trio begins to suspect that maybe the murders that are taking place are not as random as they first appeared to be.
Sleepy Hollow is loaded with brittle and foggy detailed sets that seem like they would have been at home in the Universal Studios monster movies of years past. The film also has some pedantic costume design that really adds to the visual punch. The set and costume design are complimented by the moody chiaroscuro cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, which at times borders on black and white, further fueling the classic horror movie feel of the film. Burton seamlessly edits sequences that had to have been shot on jaw-dropping sets with actual landscapes, creating a dead and gothic landscape, one of the most vivid of his entire career. This gorgeous detail is what allows Sleepy Hollow to keep its head above water rather than sinking due to the overly complicated storyline that Burton slowly and inconsistently reveals. Sleepy Hollow almost falls victim to style over substance but luckily Johnny Depp is willing to come to the rescue.
Depp single handedly gives Sleepy Hollow the soul that it so desperately needs. Depp’s Crane is a peculiar individual, the furthest thing from a manly man and one enamored with science. He cringes at the bloody crime scenes and gasps at the site of a spider but he enjoys slapping on a bizarre pair of goggles to play detective. Depp’s Crane can be viewed as an outsider throughout Sleepy Hollow, a man who wishes to make a change in police work but is consistently waved off by his superiors and finds the residents of Sleepy Hollow cocking their heads and squinting their faces when he goes off on a tirade. While Depp soars, many of the background players fall flat. His leading lady Christina Ricci isn’t given anything to do but gasp and faint every time she lays eyes on the Horseman. Miranda Richardson as Lady Van Tassel really gets to let loose at the end but some of the dialogue she is given is iffy. Christopher Walken as the Horseman is an inspired choice for the role but when we see his back-story and all he does is grunt, much of your excitement over his presence deflates. Supporting roles are filled by familiar Burton actors like Lisa Marie, Michael Gough, and Jeffrey Jones who are there simply because they know Burton and they probably owed him a favor. Ian McDiarmid and Christopher Lee also pop up in small roles but they are rarely seen and seem to be there simply to add more star power to the credits.
By the end of the film, Burton’s vision falls victim to a clunky script that ends in a rush of confusing explanations about what has been going on beneath all the supernatural carnage. Sleepy Hollow does however end with a very cool nod to James Whale’s Frankenstein despite the fact that it is as subtle as an exploding windmill. While there are some adjustments made to help the film expand into a feature length film, the storyline isn’t properly balanced out and it attempts to cram too much into the last fifteen minutes. Considering this is Sleepy Hollow and is a classic story around Halloween, the film could have benefitted from a few solid scares here and there. There are tense moments but there is nothing that will have you covering your eyes and sleeping with a nightlight on. This film does happen to be one of the bloodiest films that Burton has ever made, boasting some truly amazing gore effects that spew candle wax-like blood. Overall, Burton is the only director I can see tackling a project like Sleepy Hollow and he does do a damn fine job visually, offering up moments of staggering beauty. Depp is his usual top notch self but Burton ends up leaning on him to heavily to carry all the extra weight in the film. Despite its flaws, there is still a moderate amount of moody and atmospheric fun to be had in Sleepy Hollow, allowing it to be an above average film, but I wish this had been about a little more than just mood and atmospherics.
Sleepy Hollow is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.