Monday, January 27, 2020

'The Mad Ghoul' is worth knowing

The Mad Ghoul (1943)
Starring: George Zucco, David Bruce, Evelyn Ankers, Turhan Bey, and Robert Armstrong
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

College chemistry professor Alfred Morris (Zucco) re-discovers a formula for a gas that ancient Central Americans used turn people into pseudo-living zombies, as well as a means for reversing the transformation. He uses his assistant, Ted (Bruce), as an unwitting human test subject while trying to put the moves on Ted's opera-singing fiance (Ankers)... but when the antidote for the gas turns out to only be temporary, Morris's life and Ted's psuedo-undeath become a lot more complicated.

"The Mad Ghoul" is a horror film from Universal Pictures--the studio that bought the world "The Mummy", "Dracula", and "Frankenstein"--that sounds like a film from Monogram or PRC, with its mad scientist with an even madder scheme, a young couple being threatened by evil, and a crusading reporter who is going to stop the monster the police have been unable to catch.

What the writers and director does with those elements are a great change of, though: The crusading reporter ends up, the young couple's romance is revealed to have been over even before the film starts, and the mad doctor's mad scheme keeps getting more insane, first because he was cocky and had to cover up a failed experiment and then because he wanted to remove all rivals for the woman with whom he believes he shares a mutual attraction. (Some of my favorite parts of the film is when George Zucco and Evelyn Ankers' characters are talking past each other; Zucco thinks they are expressing their love for each other while Ankers thinks she's just unloading her sorrows to a sympathetic ear. These scenes feature some nice acting and even better writing, because they perfectly communicate the notion that Zucco's character later expresses, after he realizes he was mistaken: "Sometimes we see what we want to see.")

The cast of "The Mad Ghoul" all provide good performances. Zucco is in particularly fine form, playing the crazed heavy he specialized in but with a tiny bit of nuances thrown in. Robert Armstrong is also fun as the "I'm smarter than the cops" newsman who populates films of this type, and while I saw his brutal end coming before it actually happened, I was a little sad to see him go. Meanwhile, Ankers and Bey play the kinds of characters they portrayed in many other films, and they do it with their usual skill. Finally, David Bruce, in one of his few starring roles, is good as what initially comes across as the standard, fairly bland romantic lead, but becomes an increasingly interesting and nuanced character as the film unfolds.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

One of Universal's best horror efforts from the 1940s

Man Made Monster (1941)
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Lionel Atwill, Anne Nagel, Frank Albertson, and Samuel S. Hinds
Director: George Waggner
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After a carnival sideshow worker (Chaney) is the only survivor from a mass electrocution during a traffic accident, the world's leading electro-biologists (Hinds) invites him to become a research subject so the reason for his survival can be discerned. The scientist's evil assistant, however, subjects the unsuspecting man to illicit experiments that turn him into an electrically charged superhuman killer.

"Mad Made Monster" is a far-fetched tale of mad science of supercharging the naturally occuring electrical systems of the human body with high voltage in ways that Baron Frankenstein wouldn't have imagined in his wildest dreams. You'll barely have time to digest the pseudo-scientific whackiness because the film moves so fast.

Further, you'll find yourself buying to just about every aspect of the film thanks to some truly great performances by its cast. Lon Chaney Jr. is almost as good here as he was in anything he ever made, playing a kindhearted, trusting Everyman whose faith in his doctors ends up dooming him. Meanwhile, Lionel Atwill will have you hating him through-and-through as his characters' manipulative, self-centered ways seem all the more evil because he is exploiting and abusing such a nice guy as Chaney's character. The supporting cast are all likewise excellent in their parts, but it is Atwill and Chaney who make this movie and who elevate it to a level that almost equals Universal Studio's spectacular horror films of the early 1930s.

"Mad Made Monster" is of the very best films from the studio's 1940s horror output, and it is well worth a look by anyone who loves classic horror and monster movies.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

'The Skeleton Key' is full of badly used cliches

The Skeleton Key (2005)
Starring Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, Peter Sarsgaard, and John Hurt
Director: Iain Softley
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Caroline (Hudson), a hospice nurse with personal issues, is hired to help an elderly woman (Rowlands) with her dying, paralyzed husband (Hurt). They live in a creepy old Southern mansion, deep in the bayou, and surrounded by even creepier villages. Caroline soon discovers that there is more going on in the creepy house than meets the eye and that the man she is tending to is more likely the victim of a magical curse than a stroke. Soon, this young non-believer is drawn into a world of folk-magic, curses, and southern discomfort!

"The Skeleton Key" does a nice job of drawing the viewers into the strange environment into which Caroline enters, and it does a fine job at pacing the story, but when it comes to staying involved with the story, viewers have to be willing to accept the fact that everything Caroline does is dictated by plot concerns and horror movie "stupid character" cliches. If viewers don't mind a character who lives her life by "Things Every Horror Movie Character Must Do in Order to Live Up to Bad Writing Principles," the suspense in "The Skeleton Key" never lets up.

When it comes down to it, "The Skeleton Key" is yet another paint-by-numbers supernatural thriller that brings nothing new to the table. It could almost have been a neat film like "Cursed," except that it uses too many of the cliched elements badly. Caroline's behavior and actions is the most glaring of these. The "twist ending" is also so well-worn that I can't comment on it without spoiling the entire movie... but I could have done without it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween 2010!

This may not be the busiest of my blogs as far as new posts go, but it still showcases some of the greatest monster movies ever made... the Universal Pictures fright features from the 1930s and 1940s. These are monster movies that should be at the heart of any Halloween, and they are movies that any horror fan MUST see.

Concept art for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

If you haven't already, you really should check out those great movies. They're even easy to acquire. Click on the links to read my take on some of the best creature features to ever be unleashed upon mankind! And have a happy Halloween!

The Dracula Legacy Collection

The Frankenstein's Monster Legacy Collection

The Mummy Legacy Collection

The Invisible Man Legacy Collection

The Wolf Man Legacy Collection

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

'Eye See You' isn't worth looking at

Eye See You (aka "D-Tox") (2002)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Charles Dutton, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Berenger, Polly Walker, Robert Patrick, and Christopher Fulford
Director: Jim Gillespie
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When his girlfriend is murdered by a serial killer who has targeted him and other cops, FBI Agent Jake Malloy (Stallone) falls apart. After a suicide attempt, he checks himself into an isolated rehab center that specializes in helping police officers. The killer vowed to stay after Malloy, however, and as a blizzard cuts the facility off from the rest of the world, it appears that he may have be making good on his promise.

"Eye See You" is a charmless spin on the "Ten Little Indians"-type mystery--a group of strangers in an isolated setting, one among them is a killer who is bumping off the rest--with a heapin' helpin' of slasher-film style violence added.; Unfortunately, most of the characters never evolve beyond annoying stereotypes and there are a couple of really glaring plotholes that should have been fixed before this movie went anywhere near the public. To make matters worse, the acting is nothing special, except in a negative sense where Stallone is conccerned. He is so awful in this film that if I hadn't just seen "The Expendables", I would be wondering.. the guy could act at one time, right? I'm not misrembering, am I?).

Oh... and the ending is one of those infuriating ones where the hero ends up devolving almost to the level of the bad guy and lowers himself to a status of little more than a murderer himself.

There's nothing new or even particuarly good here. Don't bother seeing "Eye See You."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A different sort of action move that misfires

End of Days (1999)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gabriel Byrne, Robin Tunny, Kevin Pollack, Rod Steiger, and Udo Keir
Director: Peter Hyams
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Jericho Cane (Schwarzenegger), a world-weary detective, must fight against personal temptation, Satanists, a secret sect within the Catholic church,and Satan himself (Byrne) to protect a young woman named Christine (Tunny) and prevent the End of Days from occurring as the 20th century gives way to the 21st.

"End of Days" is a collage of cliched characters, stereotypes, and action scenes that resolve themselves pretty much as one would expect. It's to the supernatural thriller as "Predator" was to the monster movie, although not quite as expertly paced, nor as well acted. (While Gabriel Byrne makes for a great Satan, Schwarzenegger doesn't quite have the range that the part of Jericho Cane calls for--he can't pull off depressed OR religiously enraptured, and the role needs an actor who could have done both.)

The biggest weakness of "End of Days", which causes it to barely rate a Six, is that the director didn't know when it was time to start the climax of his movie. He seemed to feel obligated to cram in one more chase and explosion in the NYC subway even though dramatically the movie should have moved to its resolution once Jericho rescued Christine from the gathering of Satanists on New Year's Eve.

Although entertaining, and its creators deserve credit for attempting to make a different sort of action movie, "End of Days" is just too flawed to rise above average. You can easily save watching this movie until end-of-the-world mania comes back into style in 2011 and 2012.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

'Wolfman' remake is a dissapointment

The Wolfman (2010)
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving
Director: John Johnston
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Actor Larry Talbot (Del Toro) returns to his ancestral home in England after his brother mysteriously disappears. While trying to solve the mystery, he is attack by a werewolf.

"The Wolfman" is a remake of the classic Universal "The Wolf Man," arguably the period at the end of the Golden Age of monster movies. It is one of the best of werewolf movies to ever be made, but that's damning with faint praise, as a glance at this selection of reviews from sister blog Terror Titans shows. There aren't all that many good werewolf movies, so it's not hard to be among the best.

The first and biggest problem with the film is that it abandons the "Universal Gothic" setting, that strange Never-ever Land where torch- and pitchfork-wielding peasants and spell-casting gypsies existed side-by-side with European modernity in favor of a late 19th-century England that ends up feeling more like the American West when London becomes a shooting gallery as the Wolf Man runs rampant in the city.

An almost as big a problem is that instead of forging an identity and story of its own--which one might think the writers and director would have wanted to do, given the abandonment of the classic Universal horror environment--it keeps referencing the werewolf movies that spawned it, such as the original "The Wolf Man" and the very first (commercially disastrous yet artistically superior "Werewolf of London" films). From the origin of the secret curse that afflicts the Talbot family (inspired by "Werewolf of London") through the chasing of a beautiful woman through a fog-bound forest (inspired by "The Wolf Man") admirers of the old movies will see them reflected and echoed throughout this picture. Unfortunately, these "homages" will primarily remind you of how empty of ideas and substance this film truly is instead of making you admire it for building upon a grand creative legacy. Oh, and let's not even dwell on the shoehorning of Jack the Ripper into the film.

Where "Werewolf of London" saw its protagonist heroically stand up to evil, and "The Wolf Man" saw its protagonist(s) break under the weight of tragedy brought about by random events, "The Wolfman" has no real moral or emotional core. It's a superficial and melodramatic, all flash and no substance. Del Toro seems to have been cast primarily for his similarity in appearance to Lon Chaney Jr.; Blunt seems to have been cast primarily for her ability to look gorgeous, and twice-so when crying; Weaving is just there to fill space, like the Jack the Ripper backstory his character is tied to; and Hopkins is there... to be Anthony Hopkins. I think he may have retired from acting some time in the early 1990s and now just shows up to run lines. As for Hugo . None of these actors are bad and they are easily as good as the material they are working with, but there is no depth here. And that shallowness is what separates this modern Universal werewolf movie from the old ones from the 1930s and 1940s. And as flawed as "The Wolf Man" was, it wasn't shallow.

If you're looking for a film that will entertain you, spook you, and even gross you out (the transformation scenes will put you off your lunch I think), this is a movie to check out. Just know that it's not the classic that "Werewolf of London" is... and that unlike "Werewolf of London" or even the original "The Wolf Man," no one will be talking about this film more than seventy-eighty years after its release.

And this is a shame, because the talent brought to bear to make this movie should have been able to come up with something far better.