by Steve Habrat
Before English director/”Splat Pack” member Neil Marshall freaked audiences out with his 2005 girls-versus-cannibal-humanoids film The Descent, he made what could very well be one of the most entertaining werewolf horror films out there. That film would be 2002’s Dog Soldiers, a low-budget hybrid of Night of the Living Dead, Predator, The Evil Dead, The Howling, and The Wolf Man. Marshall’s Dog Soldiers is far from a flashy werewolf horror film—it doesn’t feature elaborate transformation like we saw in films like An American Werewolf in London or The Howling, and it isn’t particularly interested in commenting on the bestiality lurking in each and every one of us. Despite all of that, Dog Soldiers still unleashes some seriously terrifying werewolves on the viewer and the claustrophobic hopelessness does begin to gnaw at the viewer. It has a dark sense of humor about itself, slipping in a number of sarcastic jokes about the horror taking place around our ass-kicking heroes. It’s also extremely gory, featuring a number of stomach-churning gross out gags that make it very easy for the viewer to understand how Marshall became a member of the “Splat Pack.” You may want to approach this one with a raincoat and maybe even a barf bag.
Dog Soldiers introduces us to Private Cooper (played by Kevin McKidd), who is attempting to pass a grueling test to join a British Special Forces unit. As a final test to join the unit, Captain Ryan (played by Liam Cunningham) asks Cooper to shoot a dog. After Cooper refuses to kill the dog, Ryan fails him and sends him back home. Some time later, Cooper and a unit of British soldiers are taken to the Scottish countryside for a training exercise. Among the soldiers are Seargent Harry Wells (played by Sean Pertwee), Private “Spoon” Witherspoon (played by Darren Morfitt), Private Joe Kirkley (played by Chris Robson), Private Terry Milburn (played by Leslie Simpson), and Corporal Bruce Campbell (played by Thomas Lockyer). Shortly into the exercise, the soldiers find a SAS unit that has been ripped to shreds. The only survivor of the unit is Captain Ryan, who is babbling incoherently about his attackers. As the soldiers try to make sense of the situation, towering assailants leap out from the brush to rip them limb from limb. The group is narrowly rescued by Megan (played by Emma Cleasby), a zoologist on her way to an isolated farmhouse nearby. She takes the group to the farmhouse so that they can regroup and figure out a plan of attack, but the assailants follow them and surround the house. As the unit boards up the windows and assess their resources, they slowly discover that they are up against a pack of werewolves that can only be put down with silver bullets.
Where most werewolf horror films aim high with the special effects and make-up, Dog Soldiers dares to keep much of the elaborate stuff out of the frame. There are no static transformation scenes or lengthy glimpses of the werewolves. Early on, we get to see them only in split second bursts as they charge through the woods towards their next meal. To add extra tension, he gives us black and white POV shots of what the werewolves are seeing, something that called to mind the demonic POV of Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead. Once the soldiers are barricaded in the farmhouse, he circles the house to imply that there is no escape for these characters—at least while the moon is full and high in the sky. As the attacks escalate, Marshall scares us silly with werewolf claws bursting through windows and boards. Eventually, Marshall is forced to shed some light on his towering beasts and they certainly don’t disappoint. They stand menacingly over their victims, slightly hunched with jaws snapping and dripping with strings of saliva. They call to mind what we saw in The Howling, just with less hair and even freakier, if that was even possible. The true beauty is that they are practical and not done with a bunch of computerized fakery. When it comes to the inevitable transformation scenes, Marshall lacks the money to really pull off something eye-popping. Instead, he uses some smartly placed cuts and camera placement that allows the actors to reveal bits of make-up that have been added to parts of their face or hands. The rest is left up to our imagination and it’s extremely efficient.
With the special effects controlled, Marshall uses his story to add another layer of unease. While the premise of the soldiers barricade inside a farmhouse paying not-so-subtle tribute to Night of the Living Dead does send some giddy thrills, he allows the claustrophobia to really keep us gnawing at our fingernails. The ammo runs out quickly, the attacks are alarming cramped, and when a character becomes werewolf chow, our stomachs drop to the floor. Another subtle tribute to Night of the Living Dead pops up in the way that two of our central characters go at each other’s throats. There are twists with certain characters and others mislead our heroes in the fight to destroy the werewolves. There is also the lack of supplies, which forces the characters get a bit creative with keeping themselves alive. Some of these are faintly humorous (the sword, a letter opener, a can of hair spray and a lighter, and a fist fight), but they are all used to extremely gruesome effect. The highlight is easily a fistfight with a werewolf that ends with a one-liner that strikes you like a lightning bolt.
This all leads us to the violence of Dog Soldiers, which really makes you see why Marshall earned a spot in the Splat Pack (some of the Splat Pack members include Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Robert Rodriguez, and Alexandre Aja, among others). There are stomachs ripped wide open, guts dangling in plain view, severed heads flying across the screen, and even werewolf limbs hacked off like butter. It’s a gooey blast that just keeps on delivering for horror fans. There is an added layer of “EWW” since Marshall films most of the action with gritty handheld cameras, which give the film an unshakably raw feeling. As far as the performances go, everyone does a fine job with their roles. McKidd is no-nonsense as Cooper, who is forced to become the groups leader when their Sergeant gets taken out of the game, and Cunningham is despicable as the slimy Ryan, who is up to no good from the get-go. Overall, with plenty of high-octane action, well-placed chuckles, rampaging scares pinning you to your seat, and gasp-inducing gross outs, Dog Soldiers is a must-see for horror fans. It may not have the depth that other werewolf horror films possess, but that certainly doesn’t hold this beast back. Arguably one of the scariest werewolf horror films ever made.
Dog Soldiers is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
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
Before 1981, John Landis was far from a horror director. He hit it big with 1978’s Animal House, a college sex comedy that was all about chugging Jack Daniels and having a good time. He followed up Animal House with 1980’s The Blues Brothers, another comedy smash that seemed to suggest that Landis was sticking to the comedic track. However, in 1981, Landis revealed that he had a bit of range as a director with An American Werewolf in London, a horror film heavy with dark chuckles. As far as the horror side of An American Werewolf in London is concerned, the film isn’t nearly as scary as you’ve been led to believe. Over the years, there have been many lists ranking the scariest films of all time, most of which feature An American Werewolf in London, but the film seems to be a victim of its own hype. Despite not being overly spooky, the film still features several unsettling nightmares that surprise with the sledgehammer-to-the-head extremity and a transformation sequence that still manages to astonish first time viewers. The most charming aspect of An American Werewolf in London is undoubtedly the dark humor that Landis weaves together with his loving nods to Lon Chaney Jr.’s 1941 classic The Wolf Man.
An American Werewolf in London introduces us to David Kessler (played by David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (played by Griffin Dunne), two Americans backpacking through the English countryside. David and Jack decide to rest at a small pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, were they are met with an icy greeting from the locals. As they settle in for a drink, David and Jack notice a five-pointed star carved into the wall, which they immediately inquire about. The locals instantly ask them to leave, warning them to stay on the main road and to beware of the full moon. Confused, David and Jack leave, but they soon find themselves off the path they were warned to stay on. Things get worse for the two backpackers when they begin hearing faint growls and menacing howls circling around them. Suddenly, a wolf leaps at them from the darkness, killing Jack and severally wounding David. Three weeks later, David wakes up from the attack in a London hospital, where he learns about the death of his buddy. Over the course of a few days, David seems to be recovering nicely from the wounds that he received, but when he drifts off to sleep he suffers from horrible nightmares. Things get even more bizarre for David when the deceased Jack comes to visit him in the hospital and explains that a werewolf attacked them. Jack warns David that he must kill himself before the next full moon, or he will be responsible for more deaths. Soon, David is released from the hospital and begins shacking up with Alex (played by Jenny Agutter), a beautiful nurse that he struck up a romance with while bedridden. Things seems to be getting better for David, but the rotting Jack returns to warn him of the beast lurking inside.
An American Werewolf in London begins spooky enough, with a sudden attack that certainly gets the viewer’s heart pounding. As David and Jack wander around a darkened field, growling noises and anguished howls ring out all around them. The misty suspense erupts when a hairy blur comes shooting across the screen to leave our backpacking heroes a shredded mess. Landis manages to keep up the supernatural eeriness with David’s terrifying nightmares, which are all hilariously extreme in their own way. One dream finds a naked David sprinting through the forest when he suddenly leaps at a deer and rips its head from its body. Another dream finds David morphing into a demonic beast in his hospital bed as Alex cares for him. His final dream finds David at home with his family when several monstrous Nazi soldiers come bursting in to gun down everyone in the home. After these impressive little explosions of terror, Landis falls back on his skills as a comedic director, allowing us to find the humor in things like David waking up nude in a zoo after a night of werewolf mayhem. We get to chuckle at David’s attempts to get clothing, all of which are cleverly awkward. There is also some humor to be found in the gruesome visits from Jack, who picks up a Mickey Mouse action figure and makes it wave at David. I doubt Walt Disney would have found that one funny!
With its sense of humor finely tuned, Landis gives An American Werewolf in London even more personality through its make-up effects, which went on to nab an Academy Award. There is certainly no shortage of gore to be found, especially in the final moments when werewolf David causes chaos in Piccadilly Circus. There is a massive car pile-up, which results in bodies being thrown about like confetti over the finale. Buses run over people, heads go smashing through windshields, and a police officer’s head is ripped clean off by David’s fangs. Then there is Jack, who over the course of the film decomposes right in front of our eyes. Early on, his wounds are undeniably vicious as shards of skin dangle from his neck and blood covers about eighty percent of his body, but as the film continues, he begins to turns a greenish color and his eyeballs pop out of his skeletal head. All of this make up work doesn’t even compare to what Landis has planned for us about halfway through the film. As the full moon takes to the sky, we get to see David’s transformation up close and personal. Through Rick Baker’s amazing effects, we see thick sheets of hair poking through the skin, David’s hands and feet stretching into paws, fangs poking through the gums, and his face sprouting a snout. It’s all done through practical effects and only a handful of cuts. This sequence alone makes An American Werewolf in London essential viewing for cinema buffs or those who can appreciate the art of special effects.
As far as the performances go, everyone does a fine job with their respective roles. Naughton is spot on as the freaked-out David, who grapples with how to properly deal with his new curse. Does he end it all or does he find an alternative solution? He’s certainly gifted in the comedic sequences, especially the scene that finds him sprinting through a zoo in nothing but his birthday suit. Dunne hams it up as the talking corpse Jack, a “meatloaf” that drops by every now and then to remind David that something awful is waiting to emerge. Agutter is pleasant as the beautiful nurse Alex, a gal who finds herself quickly falling for the cursed David. John Woodvine is also on hand as David’s doctor, Hirsch, who gets to play detective after hearing David say that it was a wolf that attacked him. When it comes to An American Werewolf in London’s biggest flaw, it is difficult to ignore the abrupt ending, which cuts off on raw nerve emotion. You’d like to see what happens next, but Landis just slams the book shut on us and tells us to scram. Overall, while it favors laughs over screams, An American Werewolf in London is still a shrewd little werewolf horror film. It makes wicked use of music, the special effects will boggle the mind, and it features some marvelously set piece around London. It’s just a shame that the abrupt climax will leave you howling with disappointment.
An American Werewolf in London is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
If you watch enough horror, eventually you start to realize that a monster isn’t just a monster. The supernatural is always a conduit for something completely natural in the real world, something still terrifying but blown into monstrous proportions by screenwriters, directors, make up geniuses, and special effects mavens. When Steve asked me to put together a list of my five favorite monsters, he surely didn’t realize he’d be getting a list straight from Durkheim or Foucault. But there you have it. Here are my five favorite movie monsters, and their contextual sociological meaning.
5. George Romero’s Zombies
The zombie genre has been overrun with a lot of brain-dead films. But at their very best, zombies are a wonderful vehicle for social commentary. Of course, sometimes this can be used in outrageous and embarrassing ways (see: White Zombie, 1932, and its interpretation of tribal culture). For George Romero in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, zombies reached their apex of sociological meaning. Granted, it isn’t subtle but that’s not the point. Its lack of subtlety endows the film with gobs of humor as Romero mercilessly skewers 20th century America and its suburbanized mass-consumer culture. The timing was perfect, coming just as the baby boomer generation was departing the free-wheeling, rebellious hippie era and entering the United States of Reagan. With one brilliant decision- placing his film in a mall- Romero asks his generational cohorts, “What happened to you guys, man? You used to be cool.” Lousy yuppies.
The original Gojira (1954), and really all of the classic radioactive monsters cooked up by Toho Studios, are Sociology 101. In the post-World War II film world, Italy nurtured neo-realism to illustrate that, despite their involvement with Hitler, they too suffered on the homefront. The French fixated on the horrors of the war. However, in Japan, something else was brewing. Because of the atomic bomb, they took on real life horrors that no other civilization had ever witnessed. If ever a situation needed to be shrouded in metaphor before reaching the big screen, it was Japan in the post-World War II era. Enter Godzilla, a radioactive monster who arrives from the sea, then cuts a swath of destruction that includes several islands, the navy, and finally reaches the mainland. In other words, Godzilla was the US military, and the radioactive pollution is tied directly to it. Godzilla and the Monsters (which sounds like a band name created by Gary King) were a brilliant snapshot of exactly what terrified Japan in the 1950s.
3. Frankenstein’s Monster
What I find fascinating about the cinematic Frankenstein’s monster is that he has strong roots in at least two other places. The first and most obvious is Mary Shelley’s novel, which the film borrows from thematically quite a bit. The second is the classic Jewish golem. Both involve taking inanimate matter and re-animating it into new life. And in both instances, the new life wreaks havoc, most notably on the maker. The only major step from golem to Frankenstein’s monster is the involvement of science- in particular, the science of cutting open corpses and seeing how they tick in the 19th century- with just a dash of a God complex.
Both of those concepts were absolutely horrifying to people from the 19th century on into the early 20th century when James Whale brought the monster to life on the big screen. It resonated especially in America, a very devout Christian country whose moral sensibilities would rock to their very foundation at the notion of a mad scientist playing God. And tying medical science into the equation doubles down on fears of the era. While medical science had progressed reasonably well in the 18th and 19th centuries, it wasn’t until doctors started opening up bodies and using corpses that real progress was made. To the average schmoe on the street in the late 19th and early 20th century, this is a horrific concept- taking a loved one and ripping apart their entire earthly being for corporeal knowledge. “MEDICAL SCIENCE IS ALIVE! IT’S ALIVE! AND NOW IT’S GOING TO DESTROY US ALL!!!”
2. Japanese Ghosts
Ok, ok… a ghost isn’t a monster, per se. But it’s still a fun and scary enough concept to make someone go boom boom in their britches. The beauty of the Japanese ghost story is how deeply rooted it is in Japanese culture. Unlike Godzilla and the radioactive monsters, there was no natural disaster that created the folklore of Japanese ghosts. No, these supernatural beings are actually quite natural. They’re tied to the importance of family in Japan. Traditionally, Japanese families are protected by their deceased ancestors as part of a social bargain. The living family gives the deceased a proper burial, with proper funereal rites, and the deceased return to keep harm away from their living ancestors. If the dead aren’t given a proper burial, however, or if they die violently, all hell breaks loose.
As you can see, this process leaves a massive chasm open for ghosts in Japanese culture. They can be protectors, they can be harbingers of doom, and they can wreak havoc. And the entire theme is tied to something that every family deals with quite regularly. Everyone dies (not just in Japan, but everywhere, except for maybe Batman), and everyone must face the mortality of their family members at some point. It makes the whole concept enormously relatable. Since the Japanese have been perpetuating this mythos for centuries, they understand the entire ghost genre better than anyone. There’s a reason that 95% of the Japanese ghosts you’ve seen wear white and have jet black hair. It’s a practice that goes back centuries, and has continued on through classic Japanese ghost films like Kwaidan (1964) and Kuroneko (1968) and even on to modern films like Ju-On (2002).
1. The Wolf Man (and werewolves in general)
I could write for days about the genius of The Wolf Man (1941). The entire film was allegorical for the Nazi regime. It was written by Curt Siodmak, a Jew exiled from Germany during the rise of the Nazi state. Thematically, it’s all about the way that his seemingly normal German neighbors and friends turned on him almost overnight. They were completely normal when the sun was up. But on the full moon, they turned hideous, seeking to destroy whoever bore the “mark of the beast.” It just so happens that the “mark of the beast” in Siodmak’s film was a pentagram, purposely designed to look like the star of David that marked Jews in Germany during the era.
Digging deeper, it’s biblical. It’s about faulty genes. It’s about the sins of the father, and his father before that, and his father before that, being visited upon the sons. Go another level down and you’ve got the heart of why I love werewolf films in general. They’re metaphors for transformation, for finding the deep, dark, terrifying parts of our own souls that we didn’t even know existed. These aren’t just monsters. They’re humans, wrestling with the better angels of their nature and ultimately losing in appalling ways. In Wolf (1994), it’s the depths that he’ll go for survival and success. In Ginger Snaps (2000) and quite a few others, it’s the shocking journey through puberty into adulthood. It’s a delicious built-in character arc that makes the characters more enticing to us, the viewer… and ultimately reminds us that the scariest thing out there is the damage that we can cause all by ourselves.
Hey boys and ghouls,
We sincerely hope that you guys have enjoyed our Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular. We have crossed 3,000 hits and the hits keep coming. In celebration of the day all things scary walking the earth, lets do the Monster Mash with Boris Karloff and a hoard of go-go dancers to celebrate! Tune in tomorrow for our final review of the horror film you guys chose. Happy Halloween!
by Corinne Rizzo
Backward down the number line of chronology, Dracula, released on Valentine’s Day in 1931, is not the first in the series of Universal Monster Movies, but it certainly is one of the most refined.
Beginning not unlike the last two films reviewed this week, Dracula begins with a grand arrival, much like the arrival of the gypsies in The Wolf Man and The Invisible Man’s entrance into the pub, Renfield arrives via horse and carriage to a small valley town just below the mountain top where Dracula resides. The townspeople are hurried in their actions and are surprised to see someone new arriving so late in the evening. In an attempt to warn him at once, the villagers encourage Renfield to stay for a night and begin his travels again in the morning. When the tale of Dracula is told, Renfield laughs it off and reminds the village that he is not scared and must continue. Little did Renfield know that his arrival would give way to his enslavement.
When the audience meets Count Dracula, a slow and cautious character is introduced. His actions are calculated and lack confidence, though he knows what he is capable of. The Count’s character traits almost mimic the action within the film and just as his movements are akward and slow, the film continues in a calculated though anticlimactic way. For instance, each one of Count Dracula’s victims is visited by him in the form of a bat before they are taken down. Then, they almost casually fall unconscious, while Dracula slowly goes for the jugular. The audience can always tell when a victim is about to fall, though the viewer never sees the blood, leaving a much desired horror effect.
It is easy to write off nuances like this and chalk it up to the film being dated and that the viewer may just be used to a certain standard by now, but honestly, the story told by the villagers in the beginning seemed more menacing than the villain in this film. Think about it. Assuming you’ve seen Dracula and are reading this review to support the site or for whatever reason, every night The Count comes creeping out of his casket where he keeps native soil to rest in and he brings his three lovely assistants, whom he only calls upon to show off in front of, and there is smoke floating all around the caskets, a slow creep out with those gangly awkward fingers and then…there is no smooth and casual way of showing it, but all of the sudden Dracula is standing up! It’s enough to turn the audience giggling every time the scene is repeated. The camera shot is panned away from the casket for just a moment and suddenly, without a trace of dirt or a hair out of place, Dracula is on his feet and ready to roll.
Things like this within the film are rampant. The only way to tell if someone has been affected is that their eyes get really big, the bat that Dracula turns into to spy on his victims is super hokey and Dracula almost has too many weaknesses against him to be menacing. The guy can’t tolerate light, is spooked by mirrors, wolf vein, and crucifixes. There are so many ways to keep Count Dracula out of one’s life and the film really felt like it was stretching to find ways around those ideas.
This is not to say that it wasn’t a valiant effort on Universal’s part to depict such a character, the film was enjoyable enough to watch, though fell short of certain expectations one could develop after being exposed to The Wolf Man and The Invisible Man. There are many parallels within Dracula to keep an avid Monster Movie buff interested in the entire series, the incorporation of things like wolf vein and evil being equated with wolves, the repetition of scenes and the noticeable calculation of scenes, even the token female character—all across each film so far could keep a campy crowed happy through marathon, though taken alone, Dracula falls short in this best of three.
Top Five Reasons You Should Watch Dracula
1) Bela Lugosi is Dracula! The same gypsy werewolf in The Wolf Man!
2) There are way more dames in this film than the others so far.
3) Bats, usually a frightening creature, are the size of small pigs and hilariously nonthreatening.
4) An actual quote about these pig bats is “Watch out, it will get in your hair.” Leading the viewer to believe that whoever wrote the script believes that the everyday woman of the twenties and thirties has bat/hair issues.
5) It makes Twilight less sexy (not in that “Oh, I want to do you way, but in that overexposed American way) and more pervy (and even more awkward).
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.
Hello, boys and ghouls…
We are very close to beginning our Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular here at Anti-Film School. Starting October 1st, Anti-Film School will be overrun by monsters of all sorts. We will have zombies, mummies, vampires, werewolves, swamp monsters, psycho killers, and more. No one will be safe. Here is what you can expect over the course of the month:
Starting October 1st through the 9th, Steve will be reviewing George Romero’s zombie films and the remakes of two of his films. He will also be reviewing one of his personal favorite zombie flicks that is not a George Romero movie. It will be a gory week, so make sure you don’t get any blood and guts on you while checking the reviews out!
Starting October 10th, Corinne will be visiting with the Universal Studios Movie Monsters. She will drop in on The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf-Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s going to get spooky!
Throughout the third week of October, Charles will be unleashing Norman Bates in Psycho and the sequels that followed the Hitchcock original. He will also be checking in to the refurbished Bates Motel in the Gus van Sant remake. Charles will be hanging out with the ghosts of Poltergiest and writing a study on shock rocker turned horror director Rob Zombie. Oh, the horror!
You can also expect reviews of vampire films that you may have not seen, reviews of the original John Carpenter film The Thing and the prequel that makes it’s way to theaters during the month, and a few other monsters that we like and dislike. Also, we are asking you to vote in our latest poll, which asks you which horror film you want us to review on Halloween day. This is your chance to interact with out site. Head over to the Category Cloud and click on the poll link. The first poll box that comes up is the one that we want your input in. Voting closes on the October 20th and anything cast after the said date will be ignored. We hope you are as excited about this event as we are. We hope you all make it a ghoulish hit. Who’s ready to get scary?
Note: Anti-Film School does not claim to own the images and clips from Universal Pictures’ 1931 film Frankenstein.